Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law

Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law

Introduction – Meaning and Definition of Doctrine of Proportionality

The Doctrine of Proportionality has its initial origins in Prussia but came into light after its development in Europe in the 19th century. It basically means that the action/decision taken as a result of an individual’s act should not be extreme to the latter and actually be in proportion to it.

Philosophy related to it – “A canon cannot be used to fire a sparrow”.

The principle of proportionality envisages that a public authority has to maintain a reasonable relation between the object and the particular goals that are sought to be achieved and the means used by its employees for meeting those goals so that the individual rights are infringed to the maximum extent. Hence it can be said that any administrative action which discriminates arbitrarily or uses excessive means to meet the desired goals can be quashed by the courts on the ground that it is violative of the Doctrine of Proportionality.

Proportionality is made up of 4 components:-

  • Proper purpose
  • Rational connection
  • Necessary means and
  • A proper relation between the benefit gained by realizing the proper purpose and the harm caused to the constitutional right (proportionality stricto sensu – otherwise known as balancing).

The application of this doctrine comes into effect in cases when individual rights are violated as a cause of administrative action and the approach to the court is to question whether the actions taken by the authority are in the right amount of proportion when compared to the individual’s actions.

The “Wednesbury test” which came about as a result of the Associated Provincial Picture House v. Wednesbury case was constituted for the purpose of determining the decisions or actions taken by the administrative authorities and held that any action or decision shall be counted as irrational if :-

  • If it is beyond the authority of law
  • If it is not based on evidence
  • If it is based on irrelevant consideration
  • If it is so absurd in its violation of logic or established moral standards that no reasonable person my take such a decision on the facts and circumstances in question

Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law

The Doctrine become applicable in the field of administrative law in 2 situations:-

1. Where an administrative action invades fundamental rights, courts make strict scrutiny of the administrative action and go into the question of the correctness of the choices made by the authority. The court would also balance adverse effects on the rights and objects sought to be achieved.

2. Where a question of quantum of punishment imposed by the administrative authority is involved, the court would not make strict scrutiny. Courts follow the principle that though the quantum of punishment is within the jurisdiction of the administrative authority, arbitrariness must be avoided.

Courts take into their account 2 main things in the case of reviewing administrative actions on the basis of proportionality:-

1. Whether the relative merits of different objectives or interests have been appropriately weighed and fairly balanced?
2. Whether the action under review bias, in the circumstances, excessively restrictive or inflicted an unnecessary burden?

Important Judgements relating to Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law

1. Association of Registration, Plates v. Union of India

The court in the case of Association of Registration, Plates v. Union of India held that any judicial review of any action taken by any administrative authority only has the power to determine the validity of the said decision but cannot determine the legitimacy of the said decision. Mere probability of a particular point of view cannot be a basis for intervention. Therefore, the courts do not have the power to intrude until and unless the said decision is irrational or illegal or suffers from some flaws with regards to proportionality.

2. Coimbatore District Central Coop Bank v. Employees Association

It was held that the court while using the doctrine cannot be allowed to use a sledgehammer for the purpose of cracking a nut when a paring knife for the same would suffice. Hence, the courts must take into account administrative procedures for the purpose of making or reversing a decision. Despite this, the courts must use the “flexibility” theory to balance this theory.

3. Council of Civil Services Union v. Minister of Civil Services

Lord Diplock in this case constituted 3 crucial principles of judicial review of administrative action – irrationality, illegality and procedural impropriety.

4. R v. Secy for Home Affairs Brind, ex.p

House of Lords held that until and unless the Parliament makes sure to incorporate both Fundamental Freedoms and European Convention of Human Rights into their domestic law, the doctrine of proportionality cannot be made a part of administrative law in England.

5. R v. Ministry of Defence

The court can take the position of primary decision maker in case the question of law is related to the rights of appellants as humans which are justiciable.

6. Union of India v. G Ganayutham

The Supreme Court held that only when the court has to decide on the reasonableness of a restriction during the exercising of fundamental rights can the doctrine of proportionality become completely applicable in constitutional adjudication. Nevertheless, the application of the doctrine in still at an embryonic stage in the field of administrative law. Currently, the court does not have the authority to question the decisions taken by the administrator, hence we can say that the doctrine is still not being put to its fullest use in Indian administrative law.

7. P.D Aggarwal v. State Bank of India

The court’s jurisdiction to intervene with respect to the quantum of punishment is very limited only in the case of a very exceptional circumstance.

8. State of UP v. Sheo Shankar Lal Srivastava

The doctrine is applicable only to a limited extent in the case where the court held that “verbal abuse may entail punishment of dismissal from service”. Hence, with respect to the present case the doctrine is gaining importance as against the unreasonableness given in the Wednesbury test which states that the administrative action must be very exacting and intrusive.

9. Suresh Madan v. General Medical Council

There is a solid difference which exists in a reasoning test in terms of proportionality and greater scrutiny. It was held by the court that solving cases would be the same under either of the rules but the strength of the analysis would be much higher under the doctrine of proportionality. In addition to this, the doctrine of proportionality not only determines the fairness of decisions but also determines the balance of the decision-maker or the administrator.

1. Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v. Wednesbury Corp, (1948) 1 KB 223
2. Association of Registration, Plates v. Union of India, (2004) 5 SCC 364
3. Coimbatore District Central Coop Bank v. Employees Association, (2007) 4 SCC 669
4. Council of Civil Services Union v. Minister of Civil Services, (1984) 3 All ER 935 (HL)
5. R v. Secy for Home Affairs Brind, ex.p, (1991) 1 All ER 720
6. R v. Ministry of Defence, (1996) 1 All 257
7. Union of India v. G Ganayutham, (1997) 7 SCC 463
8. PD Aggarwal v. State Bank of India, (2006) 8 SCC 776
9. State of UP v. Sheo Shankar Lal Srivastava, (2006) 3 SCC 276
10. Suresh Madan v. General Medical Council, (2001) A.C.D 3

Author: Haritha Malepati,
3rd year BBA LLB, Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad

1 thought on “Doctrine of Proportionality in Administrative Law”

Leave a Comment