Supreme Court: The bench of Indira Banerjee* and JK Maheshwari, JJ has explained that to be ‘substantial’, a question of law must be debatable, not previously settled by law of the land or a binding precedent, and must have a material bearing on the decision of the case, if answered either way, insofar as the rights of the parties before it are concerned.

The Court was dealing with a case relating to adoption wherein the Trial Court had found that the performance of the essential requisites of adoption, such as giving in adoption and taking in adoption had not been established and that there were contradiction and inconsistencies in the evidence.

The First Appellate Court, however, re-analysed the evidence and found that some discrepancies and inconsistencies were natural since the adoption had taken place in 1950 and evidence was taken in 1984, about 34 years later.

In the Second Appeal before the High Court, there was no infirmity in the reasoning of the First Appellate Court which called for interference. The Respondents did not advert to any material evidence that had been ignored by the First Appellate Court. They also could not show that any wrong inference had been drawn by the First Appellate Court from proved facts by applying the law erroneously. There was no such infirmity in the reasoning of the First Appellate Court which called for interference.

The Supreme Court, hence, held that there was no question of law, let alone any substantial question of law, involved in the Second Appeal.

It was also observed that,

“Right of appeal is not automatic. Right of appeal is conferred by statute. When statute confers a limited right of appeal restricted only to cases which involve substantial questions of law, it is not open to this Court to sit in appeal over the factual findings arrived at by the First Appellate Court.”

The Court also summarised the following principles relating to Section 100 of the CPC:

  1. An inference of fact from the recitals or contents of a document is a question of fact. But the legal effect of the terms of a document is a question of law. Construction of a document involving the application of any principle of law, is also a question of law. Therefore, when there is misconstruction of a document or wrong application of a principle of law in construing a document, it gives rise to a question of law.
  2. The High Court should be satisfied that the case involves a substantial question of law, and not a mere question of law. A question of law having a material bearing on the decision of the case (that is, a question, answer to which affects the rights of parties to the suit) will be a substantial question of law, if it is not covered by any specific provisions of law or settled legal principle emerging from binding precedents and involves a debatable legal issue. A substantial question of law will also arise in a contrary situation, where the legal position is clear, either on account of express provisions of law or binding precedents, but the court below has decided the matter, either ignoring or acting contrary to such legal principle. In the second type of cases, the substantial question of law arises not because the law is still debatable, but because the decision rendered on a material question, violates the settled position of law.
  3. The general rule is that the High Court will not interfere with findings of facts arrived at by the courts below. But it is not an absolute rule. Some of the well-recognised exceptions are where

(i) the courts below have ignored material evidence or acted on no evidence;

(ii) the courts have drawn wrong inferences from proved facts by applying the law erroneously; or

(iii) the courts have wrongly cast the burden of proof.

When the Court refers to “decision based on no evidence”, it not only refers to cases where there is a total dearth of evidence, but also refers to any case, where the evidence, taken as a whole, is not reasonably capable of supporting the finding.

[Chandrabhan v. Saraswati, 2022 SCC OnLine SC 1273, decided on 22.09.2022]

*Judgment by: Justice Indira Banerjee

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