“Question of Law”: What constitutes to a substantial question of law and the significance it holds
The Supreme Court of India recently dealt with an important subject in an appeal filed against the judgment of the Madras High Court, whereby the Court had overturned the decision of the First Appellate Court, declining the Respondent’s claim to a decree of recovery of possession of suit premises. On August 27, 2020, the Court, in Nazir Mohamed vs. J. Kamala has summarized the basic principles of Section 100 Civil Procedure Code, 1908 (“CPC”) and has also observed that “High Court cannot allow a second appeal if there is no substantial question of law”.
Facts of the Case
In the present matter, the trial court had initially dismissed the suit of the plaintiff who demanded the declaration of title to the suit property as well as recovery of ownership of the property from the defendant. Affronted by the judgement given by the trial court, the plaintiff appealed to the Subordinate court at Kumbhakonam (“First Appellate Court”), which passed a just and fair order by holding the plaintiff as the title-holder of the property and therefore granting plaintiff the title of the said fraction of suit property owned by him. But the plaintiff failed to establish any landlord-tenant relationship between himself and defendant.
Keeping in mind the laws of limitation, as well as the fact that the defendant had been residing in the place for a long period of time, recovery of possession of the said property was not granted to the plaintiff.
The second appeal in High Court of Madras was filed by plaintiff and defendant separately. Thereafter, the Court allowed the second appeal of the plaintiff and held that he is within his rights and entitled to recovery of possession of half of the suit property.
As per Section 100 (1) of Civil Procedure Code, 1908 “an appeal shall lie to the High Court from every decree passed in appeal by any Court subordinate to the High Court, if the High Court is satisfied that the case involves a substantial question of law”.
As stated, the presence of a substantial question of law, is sin qua non for the court to exercise its power under Section 100 of CPC (Second Appeal).
In 1976, Section 100 of CPC was amended, restricting the High Court’s jurisdiction regarding second appeals. Even before the said amendment, the First Appellate Court was the final court for question of facts.
In Dudh Nath Pandey v. Suresh Chandra Bhattasali, the Supreme Court held that the High Court cannot set aside findings of fact of the First Appellate Court and come to a different conclusion on a reappraisal of evidence while exercising jurisdiction under Section 100 CPC.
Substantial Question of Law
Unless a question of law is one of extreme relevance, importance and difficulty or in regard to which there is reasonable doubt or difference of opinion it cannot be a substantial question of law.
Supreme Court has time and again tried to explain and summarise the principles by relying upon the reasoning in different cases.
- In the case of Sir Chunilal V. Mehta & Sons Ltd. v. Century Spg. & Mfg. Co. Ltd., the court held that whether a question is substantial or not, will be decided if that question is of general importance or affects the rights of the parties. Also, it will be dealt with only if it is not a settled law already and if it is already settled that it is not a “substantial question of law”.
- In the case of Hero Vinoth v. Seshammal, substantial question of law was defined as “essential, real, of sound worth, important or considerable”. Also referring to the relevant part of this judgement, the Supreme Court in the present case also opined that “the proper test for determining whether a question of law raised in the case is substantial would, in our opinion, be whether it is of general public importance or whether it directly and substantially affects the rights of the parties and if so whether it is either an open question in the sense that it is not finally settled by this Court or by the Privy Council or by the Federal Court or is not free from difficulty or calls for discussion of alternative views”.
- Substantial question of law is something that is debatable, fairly arguable, and might exist in a vivid variation of differentiated opinions.
- In the case of Biswanath Ghosh v. Gobinda Ghose, the court believed that if there is no substantial question of law, but a second appeal is allowed and decided by the High Court, the same judgement is vitiated in law.
The major questions of law framed by High Court in the present matter are:-
1. Whether the Lower Appellate Court is right in refusing the relief of possession especially when the Lower Appellate Court granted relief of mesne profits till delivery of possession?
2. Whether the Lower Appellate Court is right in holding that the Plaintiff is entitled to a declaration in respect of half of the suit property overlooking the pleadings and the documents of title in the instant case?
The Supreme Court examined both the issues or questions formed by the High Court and held that none of the above-raised questions were substantial questions of law as there was neither a dispute with regards to the interpretation of any legal effect of any document nor was there a wrong application of law. It wasn’t a debatable question as it is already covered by settled precedents or laws. Hence, it was wrong on the part of the High court to question the findings of First Appellate Court.
Principles relating to section 100 CPC summarized by the Supreme Court:-
1. Any inference drawn from contents or terms of a document is a question of fact whereas the legal effect of that same term and formulation of a document, applying the principles of law are all related to question of law. Therefore, if any wrong explanation or interpretation or wrong application of law exists, question of law arises.
2. While exercising its jurisdiction under Section 100 CPC, the high court should entertain a second appeal only if there is a substantial question of law. Also, should be satisfied on the ground that it holds or will have an effect on judgement of the case.
3. The said question of law should not be sheltered under a coved by pre-established principles or laws or any precedents.
4. In cases where the provision of law already exists and legal position is clear but the lower court has acted against the said law or precedent, substantial question of law will still arise, not to debate upon the law but because the decision rendered violates the settled law.
5. High court will not interfere with the lower court’s findings, except in the cases where:-
- Lower courts have ignored material evidence or acted on no evidence.
- Lower courts have incorrectly applied principles of law and thus drawn wrong inferences.
- Lower courts have wrongly cast the burden of proof.
Certainly, the issue of “what constitutes a substantial question of law” is a complex one. The cases and questions that the Courts in India witness are sometimes unusual and rare. Thus, in instances where the “subject matter” holds wide arrays of meanings, the introduction and interpretation of “substantial question of law” could be tricky and differ from person to person. The variation of opinions ranging between a broad set of mindsets might end up creating an obstruction in the way of justice.
Nevertheless, there is a positive side to this. The cases would be streamlined, hence creating a balance in the ever-mounting workload of the High Courts of this country. There are two sides to this matter but then again nothing comes without its own set of pros and cons.
 Case no. CIVIL APPEAL NOS. 2843-2844 OF 2010
Smt. Kamladevi vs. Smt. Manju Jain,Second Appeal No.215/2019.
(1989) 3 SCC 287 at p. 292.
Dr. R. Prakash, Scope of High Court’s Jurisdiction Under Section 100 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, (2003) 5 SCC (Jour) 27.
Warton’s Law Lexicon.
Rimmalapudi Subba Rao vs. Noony Veeraju And Ors., AIR 1951 Mad 969.
AIR 1962 SC 1314.
2 (2006) 5 SCC 545.
AIR 2014 SC 152.