Explained| Res judicata: Question of fact or law or mixed question of law and fact? Can it be decided as a preliminary issue?

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]

______________________________________________________________

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

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