‘Law of the Case’ doctrine which binds a Court to its own earlier ruling in the same case discussed: Kerala HC

Kerala High Court: A Division Bench comprising of P.N. Ravindrand and Dama Seshadri Naidu, JJ. discussed the meaning, scope and applicability of the doctrine of “Law of the Case”, differentiating it from res judicata, from precedents and also explaining the doctrine of merger. According to the facts of the case, the Government filed two petitions against two awards passed by an arbitrator in favor of the respondent, a contractor, in a lower court which upheld the awards.

The Government then moved the High Court which partially modified the award following which, the contractor filed appeals before the Supreme Court wherein the submissions of the respondent were accepted and he was directed to file review petitions before the High Court. Another Division Bench of this High Court closed the petitions as unnecessary and directed that those may be posted for fresh hearing. The issues before the Court were whether this Court could ignore the express directions of the Supreme Court and decide a different course of adjudication; whether or not it was apt to seek clarifications from the Apex Court to resolve ambiguity; and whether this Court could ignore the “Law of the Case” doctrine.

The doctrine of “Law of the Case” was deliberated upon by referring to various jurists and a plethora of judgments decided by the appellate courts of the country. According to the doctrine, the later action of a Court or a panel is dependent on a previous order rendered in the same case by the same or a higher Court, thereby displaying “disciplined self-consistency” throughout the case. While precedents bind courts only with respect to the facts of the case, law of the case “fetters a later Bench in the same case from taking a contrary stand to that taken earlier by the previous Bench.” For example, interlocutory orders where no fresh facts arise cannot be reconsidered and they bind the same court in the later stages.

The doctrine comes in two forms and has three exceptions. One form is the mandate rule which forestalls relitigation of matters in a trial court of matters already decided by a higher court and the other form binds a court to its own earlier ruling in the same case. The three exceptions to this not very rigid doctrine are “to address new evidence; to deal with a change in controlling legal authority; and to prevent a miscarriage of justice.”

The Court observed that the Supreme Court’s setting aside the modifications made in the arbitral award by the High Court was law as per Article 141 of the Constitution and that if the Court decided to hear the matter afresh, it would amount to miscarriage of justice since the Government never challenged the High Court’s judgment, while getting another opportunity to present the case again. On the other hand, revisiting the review petitions would amount to breach of the law of the case.

Therefore, the Court directed either party to approach the Supreme Court to seek necessary clarification so as to ascertain what it meant. [State of Kerala v. K.K. Mathai, 2017 SCC OnLine Ker 8668, decided on  05.07.2017]

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