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Suo Motu Cognizance by the Indian Judiciary

Suo Moto cognizance is when the courts in India take a case on their own. Suo Moto in India has been warranted under Article 32 & Article 226 of the constitution. Recently, a lot of instances can be seen where the Indian judiciary has taken up Suo Moto cases such as the Murthal Rape Case.
Written by:
Shivi Gupta
Published on
07-Mar-18

What is Suo Moto Cognizance?

A Suo Moto cognizance is a Latin term which means an action taken by a government agency, court or other central authority on their own apprehension. A court takes a Suo Moto Cognizance of a legal matter when it receives information about the violation of rights or breach of duty through media or a third party’s notification. In India, Article 32 of the Indian Constitution and Article 226 of the Indian Constitution lay down the provisions for filing Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India in Supreme Court and High Courts respectively. This has given rise to the court's’ power to initiate legal action on their cognizance of a matter. Suo Moto’s actions by Indian courts are a reflection of activism by the judiciary and captivated the general public with the speedy delivery of justice by the courts. Suo Moto cases in India are generally taken up by the Supreme Court. The Indian Judiciary has been undoubtedly holding the baton for democracy for the past few years. In numerous instances, different High Courts and the Supreme Court have risen to the occasion by taking cognizance of a legal issue on their own and provided swift justice. Various courts in India have initiated legal proceedings on their own based on media reports, telegrams and letters received by aggrieved people, taking a Suo Moto cognizance of the issue. Suo Moto action is when a High Court or Supreme Court on its own take control over the matter or the case.

Advocate Arif Khan Makki says, “The rationale behind the Suo Moto actions of the High Courts and The Supreme Court is the desire to deliver justice to everyone, even to the people who might not able to afford it.”

“The courts by taking Suo Moto cognizance have many times put themselves in the shoes of the legislature and executives by supervising them. Policymaking is a realm of the legislature and the executive, however, through judicial activism that line has been blurred,” adds Advocate Arif Khan Makki.

The Indian courts have taken Suo Moto cognizance in the following instances:

  • Contempt of Court:  Contempt of court means disobedience towards the court and ignorance of rules and regulations, code of conduct and ethics followed in a court. The court generally initiates a case for Suo Moto contempt against an officer who prevents the delivery of justice or challenges the dignity of the court.
  • Reopen Old Cases:  If some new and substantial evidence is discovered after a case is closed, the courts have the power to take Suo Moto action and reopen the case to try it again.
  • Order probe for a New Case:  If any court is of the opinion that some injustice is being done to an aggrieved person or a section of people, the court can order probe at any level by any government authority, police department, the CBI, etc. The court may also take such action after receiving a letter from the affected section of people or on the basis of any news, documentary or media source.

Suo Moto Cases in India:

There have been numerous cases in India where the Indian courts have taken Suo Moto cognizance in the matters based upon a letter or a report and have passed judgments in such cases in the public interest. Suo Moto action by the courts has given hope to the general public that the wrong done to the public at large will be corrected by the courts by taking Suo Moto Cognizance. Suo Moto’s power of supreme court has been provided under Article 131 of the Indian Constitution. Suo Moto in India has ensured that justice should prevail in the civil as well as criminal matters. Suo Moto in the Indian Constitution has been widely recognized and Indian judiciary time and again has proved its power by taking up Suo Moto cases.

Suo Moto Cognizance in Murthal Rape Case 

Recently, the Punjab and Haryana High Court has taken Suo Moto Cognizance in Murthal rape case in which many senior police officers of Haryana came to Sukhdev Dhaba to escort the women to Delhi border. The court has asked the State Government for the call details of the  IG, DSP, SHO, SP and other junior rank officers who were present in Murthal area that night. The Jammu & Kashmir High Court recently took Suo Moto Cognizance and asked the State government to respond to deficiency and other issues relating to the health sector of the state. The court took Suo Moto Cognizance of a newspaper article titled ‘Medical Corruption’. The article contained an open letter by G.S. Grewal written to the Prime Minister highlighting the excessive prices charged for medicines, malpractices of referring patients to undergo unrequired diagnostic tests and medical examinations.

Suo Moto Cognizance by Supreme Court:

  • The Supreme Court also took Suo Moto Cognizance and asked the Central Government to work with companies like Google, Yahoo, Facebook, and WhatsApp to suggest a list of keywords to block explicit videos that depict rape, gang rape, and child pornography. 
  • An NGO named Prajwala wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India in 2015 and sent a pen drive containing two videos. The letter asked the court to take appropriate measures against the culprits who were committing gang rape in a video. The Supreme Court converted the letter into a PIL.

The High Courts and Supreme Court have started to play a predominant role in highlighting various social issues and taking swift legal action against them on their own. The courts have become chief social activists by giving interest to society’s paramount importance and instituting legal actions against the State’s failure to uphold and protect the rights of its citizens.

 

Frequently Asked Question:

Is judicial review Suo Moto?

Judicial Review is the power of the Courts to determine the constitutionality of the Legislative actions. It is the power which allows the court to declare any legislative or executive actions of the government as void on the basis of unconstitutionality if, in the Court’s opinion, such actions transgress the Constitution. However, the court cannot Suo Moto decide the constitutionality of any government action unless moved by an aggrieved party and also unless the determination of unconstitutionality be necessary for the decision of the case. The legislature itself being the maker of law is not competent to determine the constitutionality of any legislative Act. An unconcerned independent and impartial body like the court is the proper authority to look into legislative lapses. This is necessary for the maintenance of the spirit of democracy. However, there have been instances where the Court, Suo Moto exercised the power of Judicial review where it came to the conclusion that certain orders have been passed illegally and in an arbitrary manner.

What is the Suo Moto as per Indian law?

The Suo Moto has its genesis in the concept of “Epistolary Jurisdiction”, which emerged in the late seventies through judicial activism in order to make the judicial process more accessible to poor, socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the Society. Suo Moto cases are instances wherein the High Courts and the Supreme court of India using their inherent powers initiate a hearing by taking cognizance of any matter on its own, without anybody filing any appeal or writ petition. It is the article Article 32 and Article 226 of the Indian Constitution enable the Supreme Court and High Courts respectively to issue any directions to do or refrain to do an act. By virtue of these two Articles and also the emergence of Public Interest Litigation has allowed these Courts to take up Suo Moto cases. The rationale for such actions also draws upon the desire of the courts to broaden the reach of justice to those who might not be able to access the court.

What is Suo Moto's power?

The Suo Moto has its genesis in the concept of “Epistolary Jurisdiction”, which emerged in the late seventies through judicial activism in order to make the judicial process more accessible to poor, socially and economically disadvantaged sections of the Society. Suo Moto cases are instances wherein the High Courts and the Supreme court of India using their inherent powers initiate a hearing by taking cognizance of any matter on its own, without anybody filing any appeal or writ petition. It is the article Article 32 and Article 226 of the Indian Constitution enable the Supreme Court and High Courts respectively to issue any directions to do or refrain to do an act. By virtue of these two Articles and also the emergence of Public Interest Litigation has allowed these Courts to take up Suo Moto cases. The rationale for such actions also draws upon the desire of the courts to broaden the reach of justice to those who might not be able to access the court.

What is the Suo Moto petition?

When the court proceeds Suo Moto, using its jurisdictional powers and issues a Suo Moto writ on the grounds of blatant violation of the law, to maintain public order, to prevent the gross constitutional violation, to remedy grave injustice. The Suo Moto cognizance virtually presupposes the public at large as one of the parties. Therefore after the court takes cognizance of a matter, it usually appoints amicus curiae to assist the court.

In what cases can the court take Suo Moto action?

The ambit of Suo Moto action of the courts has not been defined in any statue or in any act, therefore there are no bracketed instances where the courts can take Suo Moto cognizance. It has been evolved by the judicial activism of the judges to consider the intent of the public at large. The court can take Suo Moto cognizance where it deems fit. However, over the years it has been seen that the court through the letters, media reports, etc. have taken Suo Moto cognizance where there has been a violation of basic human rights, or of conduct of government policies, or violation of religious rights or other basic fundamental rights, etc. 

One such example is that when the Supreme Court took Suo Moto cognizance of Delhi air pollution. The courts in many instances have also taken Suo Moto cognizance of contempt of court, where ever the dignity of the court has been challenged or where someone had tried to obstruct the delivery of justice. 

The Court has the Suo Moto power to bring a case under its own jurisdiction, if it feels there has been grave injustice done, one such example is the recent Unnao rape case. The powers granted to the courts under Art 226 and Art 32 of the Indian Constitution is so wide that there cannot be made an exhaustive list of the instances where the court can take Suo Moto cognizance.