Constitutional Law: Prospective Overruling

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Precedents have often enjoyed the repute of abridging the gap between the traditional and contemporary perspectives of law in a common law set up. The norm of retrospective operation of judicial pronouncements has been a part of traditional jurisprudence for quite some time. The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling was adopted from the American legal system as an aberration from this traditional concept of retrospectivity often referred to as the Blackstonian view of Law, marking its first application in the famous case of I.C. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab. Grappled with the facets of both negative and positive opinions, this Doctrine seems to have placed itself at a prominent position in Indian jurisprudence.

Explanation of the concept

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling dictates that a decision made in a particular case would have operation only in the future and will not carry any retrospective effect on any past decisions. Going by the literal meaning of this terminology, “prospective” is understood as something which only has a future operation and the term “overrule” connotes setting aside a precedent or a decision. It has been often tagged as a deviation from the Blackstonian view of Law, which postulates that a judge should follow the Doctrine of Stare Decisis in courts and that the power of a judge is restricted to declaration of law and not making the law. This view undeniably confirms the retrospective norm of a precedent.

The primary intention of courts in applying this Doctrine has been attaining justice as the principle of retrospective operation robbed an individual of fair trial and conclusion. The Doctrine prescribes the parameters within which a judicial decision is bound to operate. In simpler words, it provides that transactions made before a judicial pronouncement will not be termed invalidated following the change of law. Justice Cardozo opined that non-application of this Doctrine would cause grave injustice and will give away the dynamic nature of law. This Doctrine serves as an important instrument in catering to the changing needs of the society and offering fair justice. Justice Subba Rao was a great advocate of this doctrine and articulated on how adoption of this Doctrine sets the foundation for recognizing new and better rules for future transactions.


The Doctrine marked its application in Indian jurisprudence for the first time in the case of I.C. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab in 1967. J. Subba Rao advocated the application of this Doctrine and insisted that judicial restraints are called for, given the effect of the withdrawal of these amendments on the social and economic affairs of our country. He discarded the objections made to this Doctrine by referring to the elastic and wide terms used in the Indian Constitution enabling the Court to meet the ends of justice.

Kesvananda Bharti vs. State of Kerala overruled the Golaknath judgement but the Doctrine, as laid down in the impugned judgement remained intact and found its application in many other Supreme Court cases in both constitutional and non-constitutional contexts. This Doctrine was further referred in Indra Sawhney v. Union Of India, where the Court held that the ruling would come into effect after five years from the date of the judgement. In a recent judgement of the State of Madhya Pradesh v. Maharaj Singh, the Madhya Pradesh High Court had elaborately discussed the application of prospective overruling where the Court by drawing parallel to Ram Naresh Rawat v. Ashiwini Ray & Ors ruled in the favour of this Doctrine. The case of Harsha Dhingra v. State of Haryana offers a detailed explanation of the mentioned Doctrine by providing that, Prospective overruling is not only a part of the constitutional policy but also an extended facet of stare decisis and not judicial legislation.”

This Doctrine has been discussed and used in various cases like K. Madhava Reddy & Ors v. Government of A.P. & Ors, M/S Somaiya Organics (India) Ltd. v. State of UP, State of Kerala v. Alasserry Mohd., Waman Rao v. Union of India, Orissa Cement Ltd. v. State of Orissa and many other pronouncements. Over time, this doctrine has come a long way in Indian jurisprudence. While one of the propositions in Golaknath case restricted its application to constitutional matters, the above-mentioned cases provide instances of the Doctrine being invoked in statutory matters as well. Managing Director, ECIL Hyderabad v. B Karunakar provided with an illustrative list of all the cases where the Doctrine was invoked in statutory provisions.

Provisions involved

The Doctrine is not governed by any particular provision that legalises its application in India. While advocating for the invocation of this Doctrine, J. Subba Rao pointed at some relevant legal points that justified its application. He submitted that while there is no specific statutory provision that bars the application of this Doctrine, the concept of overruling also does not exclude the discretion of deciding whether a decision would have a retrospective or prospective effect. Addressing the issue of whether the employment of this Doctrine is a retrogression of the Constitution, he substantiated that Article 141, 142 and 32 are exposed to wide interpretations which enable the Court to employ or discard certain legal doctrines to attain fair justice and observed that the Constitution does not expressly expound against this Doctrine. He explicated that Article 141 under its power to declare law provided to the Supreme Court, also includes the power to declare that a pronouncement will have only prospective effect.

Critical analysis

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling has been exposed to both criticism and appreciation since its inception in Indian jurisprudence. The minority judgement delivered in Golaknath case strongly condemned the use of this Doctrine and advocated the use of the Blackstonian view of law. Further, renowned jurist, Mr. H.M.Seervai, vehemently criticised the invocation of this Doctrine by observing that it would lead to reconsideration of the theory of ultra vires and indicated that a law that is held invalid due to violation of fundamental rights is void ab initio, which makes the application of prospective overruling in Golaknath case illogical as the amendments in question thereof, were clearly violative of fundamental rights.  

The propositions dictated in the Golaknath case not only provide a certain form of guidelines but also deliver insight and a logical explanation as to why the continued application of this doctrine will prove to be fruitful for socio-economic setup of Indian legal jurisprudence. The overall corollary of this endeavour exposes our legal system to the idea of judicial discretion and the dynamic nature of law which has resulted in equipping the gaps of legal theories in an effective manner. Complementing the constitutional provision of Article 141, the Doctrine also extends the power of the Supreme Court to decide to what extent a particular pronouncement will operate. It not only reflects the law-making power of a judge and the interpretation of the same that follows with it but also simultaneously strikes a balance with the theory of Stare Decisis, enabling the justice providers to decide between retrospective and prospective relevance of a legal decision.


Incorporating this Doctrine to the common law set up of India has proved to be a fruitful endeavor in its totality. Though the employment of this Doctrine has provided flexibility to the judicial discretion of the Indian judiciary, caution while invoking it also becomes necessary. Extending the use of this Doctrine to the High Courts at times becomes important so that the motive of protection of rights and justice is not compromised. An exhaustive understanding of all the aspects of this Doctrine propounds a satisfactory socio-economic effect as it helps in sweeping the chaos and confusion that might be created with the norm of retrospectivity at times. The step taken by J. Subba Rao in introducing this Doctrine has proven to be a fascinating one as it provides a sense of clarity to the rule of overruling and has had some significant ramifications for the Indian legal dynamic.

Author: Favi Singla from Gujarat National Law University.

Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India.


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