Case Briefs

Supreme Court: The 3-Judge Bench comprising of Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud*, Vikram Nath and BV Nagarathna, JJ., has held that the question whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor is a question of law and existence of alternate remedy would not bar the High Court from entertaining the same. The Bench expressed,

“The issues raised by the appellant were questions of law which required, upon a comprehensive reading of the Bihar Electricity Act, a determination of whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor…”

The crux of the case was that the Patna High Court had declined to entertain writ petition challenging the validity of electricity duty and penalty imposed on the electricity supplied to Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB) on the ground that the dispute between the parties was factual in nature and was suitable for adjudication in terms of the statutory remedy provided in the Bihar Electricity Duty Act 19481.

Factual Developments

The appellant, a sugar mill company was engaged in the business of manufacture and sale of white crystal sugar. The waste of sugarcane (bagasse) was used for the production of electricity for its own consumption by the appellant and the surplus energy was supplied to BSEB.

In pursuance of its power under Section 3(1) of the Act, the State had issued a notification dated 21-10-2002 which stipulated that the rate of duty applicable on the consumption or sale of electricity would be fixed at six per cent of the value of energy consumed or sold for any other purposes other than irrigation which was later amended on 04-03-2005 which provided that the rate of duty to be levied on consumption of electrical energy generated by captive power plants would be six per cent of the  value of energy, i.e. energy tariff as fixed by the BSEB. Noticeably on 14-01-2011 another notification was issued by the State, granting a blanket exemption from payment of electricity duty on electricity generated by captive plants for self-consumption.

In the above backdrop, the appellant had challenged the notifications dated 21-10-2002, which was struck down by the High Court on the ground that there were no guidelines in the statute or the notifications for construing the expression ‘value of energy’. Subsequently, the State amended the Act through the Bihar Finance Act 2012 with retrospective effect from 17-10-2002 for defining the term ‘value of energy’.

Once again, the appellant challenged the amendment in the High Court, however, while the petition was pending the State issued a notice to the appellant for its failure to file returns under Section 6B (1) of the Act, concealment of the sale of electricity of approximately Rs 56 crores and for raising a demand of electricity duty and penalty of about Rs 67 crores.

Grievance raised by the Appellant

On behalf of the appellant, the following submissions had been made to substantiate the claim that no tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by the appellant to BSEB for the following reasons:

  1. Under Section 3 of the Act, tax was levied on the ‘value of energy’ and Section 2(ee) only brought the sale to a consumer within the ambit of the phrase ‘value of energy’;
  2. BSEB was a ‘licensee’ and not a ‘consumer’ in view of the definition of ‘licensee’ provided under Section 2(d) of the Act; and the term ‘value of energy’ used in Section 3 for the levy of tax was not applicable to BSEB because the definition of ‘consumer’ excluded a licensee, Section 2 (b) states:

“‘Consumer’ means any person who is supplied with energy but does not include either a licensee or the distributing licensee…”

  1. BSEB was already paying electricity duty for the electricity sold by it to consumers, including the electricity supplied by the company to the Board. The levy of tax on the electricity supplied by the company would thus amount to double taxation;
  2. Even if it was conceded that the State had power to levy tax on the supply of electricity by the generator to the licensee, the Government had not exercised its power, since under Section 3, a notification must be issued for specifying the rate of charge. The notification issued on 21-10-2002 was only providing the rate of duty on ‘consumption or sale of electricity’.
  3. Since the power exercised by the State under Section 3 of the Act to levy electricity duty on sale of electricity by the appellant to BSEB was a jurisdictional issue, the rule of alternate remedy would not apply;

Analysis

In a similarly placed case, which was initially tagged with the instant petition but was later de-tagged, National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd. (NTPC) was supplying electricity exclusively to the Electricity Boards, which had challenged the same issue before the Court, the High Court had held that electricity duty could not be imposed under Section 3 (1) of the Act on a power generation company supplying electricity to a licensee like the Electricity Board, concluding that it was beyond the legislative competence of the State to impose a tax on the sale of electricity which was not a sale for consumption. Moreover, the High Court observed that in terms of the provisions of the Bihar Electricity Act, a power generation company is liable to pay duty only if it is selling electricity to the consumer, as defined in the legislation.

Noticeably, the High Court by its impugned order had declined to entertain the writ petition on two counts: (i) the appellant had an alternate statutory remedy under Section 9A of the Act; and (ii) the dispute involved questions of fact which are not amenable to the writ jurisdiction of the High Court. The Bench observed that it was not the case of the appellant that the respondents had miscalculated the duty and penalty imposed on it. The appellant contended that the State Government did not have power to levy tax on its sale of electricity to BSEB. Thus, the plea stroke at the exercise of jurisdiction by the Government; accordingly, the Bench held,

“The High Court can exercise its writ jurisdiction if the order of the authority is challenged for want of authority and jurisdiction, which is a pure question of law.”

Relying on the decision in Sree Meenakshi Mills Ltd. v CIT, 1956 SCR 691, wherein a three judge Bench had explained succinctly the tests for the identification of questions of fact, questions of law and mixed questions of law and facts, the Bench stated that, “the test that is to be applied for the determination of a question of law is whether the rights of the parties before the court can be determined without reference to the factual scenario.”

Verdict

Hence, the Bench held that the issues raised by the appellant were questions of law which required, upon a comprehensive reading of the Bihar Electricity Act, a determination of whether tax can be levied on the supply of electricity by a power generator (which also manufactures sugar) supplying electricity to a distributor; and whether the State had the legislative competence to levy duty on the sale of electricity to an intermediary distributor.

Resultantly, the Bench was of the view that the High Court made an error in declining to entertain the writ petition and it would be appropriate to restore the proceedings back to the High Court for a fresh disposal. Accordingly, the appeal was allowed and the impugned judgment was set aside.

[M/s Magadh Sugar & Energy Ltd. v. State of Bihar, 2021 SCC OnLine SC 801, decided on 24-09-2021]

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Kamini Sharma, Editorial Assistant has put this report together

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Appearance by:

For the Appellant: Advocate SK Bagaria

For the State of Bihar: Sr. Advocate Saket Singh


*Judgment by: Justice Dr Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud

Know Thy Judge| Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

Case BriefsSupreme Court

Supreme Court: In an important ruling on Res Judicata, the 3-judge bench of Dr. DY Chandrachud*, Vikram Nath and Hima Kohli, JJ has held that the issues that arise in a subsequent suit may either be questions of fact or of law or mixed questions of law and fact.

“Issues that arise in a subsequent suit may either be questions of fact or of law or mixed questions of law and fact. An alteration in the circumstances after the decision in the first suit, will require a trial for the determination of the plea of res judicata if there arises a new fact which has to be proved. However, the plea of res judicata may in an appropriate case be determined as a preliminary issue when neither a disputed question of fact nor a mixed question of law or fact has to be adjudicated for resolving it.”

“Best method” to decide the question of res judicata:

The court while undertaking an analysis of the applicability of the plea of res judicata determines first, if the requirements of section 11 CPC are fulfilled; and if this is answered in the affirmative, it will have to be determined if there has been any material alteration in law or facts since the first suit was decreed as a result of which the principle of res judicata would be inapplicable.

In Syed Mohd. Salie Labbai (dead) by L.Rs v. Mohd. Hanifa, (1976) 4 SCC 780, it was enunciated that before a plea of res judicata can be given effect, the following conditions must be proved:

(1) that the litigating parties must be the same;

(2) that the subject-matter of the suit also must be identical;

(3) that the matter must be finally decided between the parties; and

(4) that the suit must be decided by a court of competent jurisdiction.

The verdict in Alka Gupta v. Narender Kumar Gupta, (2010) 10 SCC 141, further made clear that

“The plea must be clearly established, more particularly where the bar sought is on the basis of constructive res judicata. The plaintiff who is sought to be prevented by the bar of constructive res judicata should have notice about the plea and have an opportunity to put forth his contentions against the same.”

Twin test for the identification of whether an issue has been conclusively decided in the previous suit is:

  1. The necessity test: Whether the adjudication of the issue was ‘necessary’ for deciding on the principle issue.
  2. The essentiality test: Whether the judgment in the suit is based upon the decision on that issue.

Res Judicata: Question of fact or law or mixed question of law and fact?

It has earlier been held by the Supreme Court that a determination of whether res judicata is attracted raises a mixed question of law and facts [Madhukar D Shende v. Tarabai Aba Shedage, (2002) 2 SCC 85 ; Ram Harakh v. Hamid Ahmed Khan, (1998) 7 SCC 484].

However, Justice K. Ramaswamy writing for a three-judge bench of this court in Sushil Kumar Mehta v. Gobind Ram Bohra, (1990) 1 SCC 193 held that the principle of res judicata cannot be fit into the pigeonhole of ‘mixed question of law and facts’ in every case. Rather, the plea of res judicata would be a question of law or fact or a mixed question of both depending on the issue that is claimed to have been previously decided.

In Mathura Prasad Bajoo Jaiswal v. Dossibai N.B Jeejeebhoy, (1970) 1 SCC 613, it was held that,

“A decision of a competent Court on a matter in issue may be res judicata in another proceeding between the same parties: the “matter in issue” may be an issue of fact, an issue of law, or one of mixed law and fact. An issue of fact or an issue of mixed law and fact decided by a competent Court is finally determined between the parties and cannot be re-opened between them in another proceeding. The previous decision on a matter in issue alone is res judicata: the reasons for the decision are not res judicata.

(…)

The matter in issue, if it is one purely of fact, decided in the earlier proceeding by a competent Court must in a subsequent litigation between the same parties be regarded as finally decided and cannot be reopened. A mixed question of law and fact determined in the earlier proceeding between the same parties may not, for the same reason, be questioned in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties. But, where the decision is on a question of law i.e. the interpretation of a statute, it will be res judicata in a subsequent proceeding between the same parties where the cause of action is the same, for the expression “the matter in issue” in Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure means the right litigated between the parties i.e. the facts on which the right is claimed or denied and the law applicable to the determination of that issue. Where, however, the question is one purely of law and it relates to the jurisdiction of the Court or a decision of the Court sanctioning something which is illegal, by resort to the rule of res judicata a party affected by the decision will not be precluded from challenging the validity of that order under the rule of res judicata, for a rule of procedure cannot supersede the law of the land.”

Can res judicata be decided as a preliminary issue?

Yes. In certain cases, particularly when a mixed question of law or fact is raised, the issue should await a full-fledged trial after evidence is adduced.

[The Jamia Masjid v. KV Rudrappa,  2021 SCC OnLine SC 792, decided on 23.09.2021]

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Appearances before the Court:

For appellant: Senior Advocate V Mohana

For respondents: Senior Advocate Basava Prabhu Patil and Advocate Balaji Srinivasan


*Judgment by: Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud

Know Thy Judge| Justice Dr. DY Chandrachud