Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

What is Overruling?

Overruling can be defined as an action of the superior court in which it sets aside the decision of the lower court in some other case. It can be also be viewed as a disapproval of a superior court with the decision of the lower court but this disapproval has no effects on the previously decided cases or in short it doesn’t have a retrospective effect. This is to ensure that the parties involved in the previous cases remain bound by the decision delivered by the lower court in that case under the doctrine of stare decisis. A case which is first overruled can be reversed if an appeal gets lodged before the court against the decision. But first a decision should be reversed and then overruled.

Understanding the Concept of Overruling with the help of an example

The best example of explaining overruling is the decriminalization of Sec 497 IPC, which was Adultery. Earlier a man was labelled as a ‘seducer’ and was held criminally liable for having affair with a woman who is already married but it protected a woman from being prosecuted. In Sowmitri Vishnu v. Union of India, a three judge bench comprised of the then CJI Y V Chandrachud, and Justices R.S Pathak and A.N. Sen upheld the constitutional validity of Sec 497, IPC and rejected the petition in which it was claimed that both man and woman should be held equally liable for the act of adultery. CJI Y V Chandrachud had an opinion that though it is common to accept that the man was a seducer and must be held liable for the offence of adultery and not a woman but to consider Sec 497, IPC as invalid is totally upto the legislature and not upon the discretion of the Supreme Court. H further stated that if they struck down the provision then adultery would be committed even more than that time.

But after thirty three years of this judgement, a petition was filed before the Supreme Court in which the petitioner questioned about the constitutional validity of the Sec 497, IPC and said it to be invalid because it only punished a man for being a seducer or an offender and a woman gets a protection, although both of them should be treated as offenders because they both consented over a sexual act. This case was ‘ Joseph Shine v. State of Kerala‘. A Constitutional bench was set up comprised of five judges, Former CJI Dipak Mishra and Justices R.F. Nariman, A.M. Khanwilkar, D Y Chandrachud and Indu Malhotra held that Section 497 IPC was more discriminatory towards woman as it portrayed a woman as a “chattel” of her husband. The bench held the provision to be unconstitutional. The petition was allowed but adultery was decided to be a gender neutral ground for filing a divorce and it will continue to be the restriction on the sexual freedom of a married couple. Justice DY Chandrachud showed his dissent towards the earlier decision of his father former CJI YV Chandrachud and observed that they need to make their decisions relevant according to the present day needs of the society.

Overruling can be both expressed and implied. An overruling which has an effect in future is known as prospective overruling.

Prospective Overruling

Prospective Overruling refers to those judgements which are overruled by the Superior Court and which only have a prospective or futuristic effect on the decisions which will be delivered by any court after that particular judgement and that overruled judgement will not affect the retrospective decisions or decisions which were delivered before the overruled judgement. This doctrine has been evolved from the judgement of Supreme Court of America in the case of, “People v. Graves”. The facts of the case are-

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1928 decided that a State holds no right to tax the income from copyright royalties but this decision was overruled in 1932 and earlier decision was declared as erroneous. Before the overruling, Elmer Rice, who was a dramatist in New York, received large amounts of royalties from his plays and he paid no income tax out of those royalties to the Government of New York. When the decision of 1928 was overruled in 1932, authorities of New York asked the Rice to pay three years of income tax on those royalties. The New York Court also held him liable for those previous three years’ tax and ordered him to pay interest for the intervening period. The decision of the New York Court was based on Blackstonian traditional view that precedents don’t create laws but only interpret them which caused hardships to the parties affected who were relied on the previous decisions. Because of this concept the theory followed at that time was that when the precedent is overruled, the overruled decision must be viewed as an interpretation of law and the rejected decision must be treated as a nullity. Overruled decisions had a retrospective effect. The US Supreme Court avoided such hardships by introducing the doctrine of prospective overruling and held that overruled decisions would not have any retrospective effect.

In India, the Supreme Court adopted this doctrine in the case of I.C. Golak Nath v. State of Punjab. In which the Apex Court overruled its earlier decisions taken in Sankari Prasad v. State of Punjab and Sajjan Singh v. State of Rajasthan through which the First and Seventeenth Constitutional Amendments were declared as valid. The court held in Golak Nath’s case that fundamental rights couldn’t be altered using the provisions of Article 368 of the Constitution and held that the First, Fourth and Seventeenth were violative to the right to property given under Article 31-A and 31-B and declared them as unconstitutional. But it didn’t have a retrospective effect. In simple words those three amendments were held valid till Golak Nath’s case. The Supreme Court restricted the effect of Golak Nath judgement to future cases only by applying Doctrine of Prospective Overruling.

Thus, we can see that in India, the judges apply existing laws to the previous decisions and new laws to the future decisions by using prospective overruling. The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling acts as a gap between the legal theories and gives the doctrinal foundations to provide an extended view upon judicial decision in order to determine how it should be applied to the different time dimension and the type of cases for which the holding of a particular case shall have operative effect.

In Golak Nath’s case, it was also held that this doctrine can only be used in the constitutional matters and it can only be applied by the Supreme Court which will be purely discretionary according to the nature of the case.

But in Waman Rao v. Union of India , It was held that this doctrine can also be applied to ordinary statues as well.

In Indira Sawhney v. Union of India, Justice Jeevan Reddy declared that the judgement delivered in the case would have effect after five years from the date of the judgement. This case shows that elongation of time for the application can also be applied under this doctrine.


The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling was introduced in India through the Golak Nath’s case and after that use of this doctrine can be witnessed several times in different cases. This Doctrine which is originally the evolution of American Supreme Court can be viewed as a progressive approach because of its nature that it cannot be applied to the past rulings but will have an effect on upcoming rulings. This is as per the needs of the society in which past concepts and theories must be left untouched and everyone should think of making the future better. The Supreme Court holds the power of applying this doctrine on the cases which require to be overruled so to meet the ends of justice, this shows that crucial decisions should always remain with the Apex Court. Thus we can conclude on the point that this doctrine is and will be the need and aid for the Indian Judiciary.

Author: Samiksha Mehta,
Invertis University/ Student ( LL.B 3rd year

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