Doctrine of Ultra Vires

The term ‘ultra vires’ simply means “beyond powers” or “lack of power”. The term ‘ultra vires’ signifies a concept distinct from “illegality”.

The term ‘ultra vires’ points to the capacity or power of the person to do that act. It is not necessary that an act to be ultra vires must also be illegal. It may be but it may as well, not be. An act may be illegal because it is prohibited by law or for reasons like fraud, undue influence or because it may be opposed to public policy.

(i) The essence of the doctrine of ultra vires is that the act is done in excess of the powers possessed by the person in law.

(ii) The doctrine of ultra vires is one of the central principles of Administrative Law. Simply meaning that a public authority may not act outside its powers.

(iii) Origin of the doctrine-

Attorney General v. Great Eastern Railway, LR (1880) 5 AC 473

The doctrine of ultra vires ought to be reasonable. and not unreasonably, understood and applied and whatever may be fairly regarded as incidental to. or consequential upon, those things which the legislature has authorized ought not (unless expressly prohibited) to be held, by judicial construction. to be ultra vires.

(iv) Doctrine explained

Sukhdev Singh & Ors vs Bagatram Sardar Singh, AIR 1975 SC 1331

The doctrine of ultra vires as applied to statutes, rules, and orders should equally apply to the regulations and any other subordinate legislation. The regulations made under the power conferred by the statute are subordinate legislation and have the force and effect, if validly made, as the Act passed by the competent legislature.

V.T. Khanzode & ors. V. Reserve Bank of India & Anr, 1982

The doctrine of ultra vires in relation to the powers of a statutory corporation has to be understood reasonably and so understood, “whatever may fairly be regarded as incidental to, or consequential upon, those things which the Legislature has authorised ought not (unless expressly prohibited) to be held by judicial construction to be ultra vires.

Union of India and others Vs. Shah Goverdhan L. Kabra Teachers’ College, (2002) 8 SCC 228

When a law is impugned as being ultra-vires of the legislative competence, what is required to be ascertained is the true character of the legislation. If on such an examination it is found that the legislation is in substance one on a matter assigned to the legislature then it must be held to be valid in its entirety even though it might incidentally trench on matters which are beyond its competence. In order to examine the true character of the enactment, the entire Act, its object and scope and effect, is required to be gone into.

(v) Examples / Matters where doctrine applied

In The Matter Of Cauvery Water Dispute Tribunal, AIR 1992 SC 522, the Apex Court held that the Karnataka Cauvery Basin Irrigation Protection Ordinance, 1991 seeks directly to nullify the order of the Tribunal passed on 25th June, 1991. It impinges upon the judicial power of the State and was held to be ultra vires the Constitution.

Global Energy Ltd. & Anr. v. Central Electricity Regulatory Commission, (2009) 15 SCC 570

The Apex Court considered vires of Regulation 6-A of the Regulations framed by the CERC in 2006. It was held to be ultra vires of Act and the Constitution of India. Regulation 6-A provided for disqualification. The Court held subordinate legislation should be read in the context of the Act, in terms of requirement of section 52 of the Electricity Act, 2003. The Court observed that when a statute is sought to be enforced the power of authority to impose restrictions and conditions must be construed having regard to purpose and object it seeks to achieve. The conditions regarding generation of power must be reasonable. There cannot be excessive delegation. The power of Central Electricity Regulatory Commission to impose qualifications/restrictions should be read in line with larger object of the Act. The delegated legislation should promote rational and accountable policy implementation.

Lily Thomas vs. Union of India & Ors., (2013) 7 SCC 653

The Apex Court observed that Parliament has been vested with the powers to make law laying down the same disqualifications for person to be chosen as a member of Parliament or a State Legislature and for a sitting member of a House of Parliament or a House of a State Legislature. It held that the provisions of Article 101(3)(a) and 190(3)(a) of the Constitution expressly prohibit Parliament to defer the date from which the disqualification will come into effect in case of a sitting member of Parliament or a State Legislature. Parliament, therefore, has exceeded its powers conferred by the Constitution in enacting sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951 and accordingly sub-section (4) of Section 8 of the Act is ultra vires the Constitution.

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Bhumika Sharma

She is currently a Research Scholar, (PhD) at Himachal Pradesh University, Shimla. She finds peace in research and writing on a variety of social issues. She believes in the power of education and awareness to deal with various problems.

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