Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

Introduction to the Doctrine of Prospective

This doctrine of Prospective overruling has been borrowed from United States of America. It is a well established fact that when a case has been decided it not only applies on a particular case but its ratio is also applicable in the future upcoming cases. As Precedents is one of the major sources of law. This American principle of Prospective overruling was first mentioned in the case of I.C. Golaknath v. State of Punjab as far as India is concerned. In simple words Doctrine of Prospective overruling means that a decision of such case would not have any retrospective operation but would have only prospective operation i.e. Future case.

Meaning of Doctrine of Prospective

The literal meaning of ‘prospective’ is operative or effective in future whereas the term ‘overruling’ means to overturn or to set aside. So, if we combine both the words meaning we can conclude that Prospective Overruling means construing an earlier decision in such a manner that it would not have a binding effect to the parties of the original suit and the changing law would apply only prospectively to the future upcoming cases.

For example, if a particular principle was laid down in A v. B case and then the court later disagrees with that principle. So here the principle will change prospectively without affecting the judgment of A v. B case. So the new principle will only apply to the future cases.

Brief History of Doctrine of Prospective

It was the American judicial system where doctrine of prospective overruling which aims at overruling a precedent without causing a retrospective effect was introduced. This principle was first laid down by Justice Cardozo and Justice Lerned Hand. It was the famous case of Great Northern Railway v. Sunburst Oil & Refining Company, where this doctrine was highly identified.

Coming on to India, the power to prospectively overrule the Supreme Court’s earlier decision was first established in the famous case of IC Golak nath v State of Punjab.

Golak Nath and Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

It was the Chief Justice Subba Rao who first invoked this doctrine in India. He basically determined this doctrine from American Law where eminent jurists like Canfield, Freeman, Wigmore and Cardozo regarded this doctrine as a very useful Judicial Tool. Chief Justice Subba Rao believed that this doctrine is very well suitable for the modern fast moving society. It is also a practical solution for the two overlapping doctrine that is whether court finds law or does it make law also. He also mentioned that Indian Constitution does not necessary speaks against this doctrine of Prospective overruling. He says Articles 32, 141, and 142 empowers this Court (Supreme Court) to formulate legal doctrines to fulfill the ends of Justice. While giving his Judgment he also analyzed the objections which had been laid down against the use of this doctrine. He but refuted those objections and strongly supported the authority of the Doctrine of Prospective overruling.

Chief Justice Subba Rao has also laid down some principles of guidelines regarding the applicability of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling. These guidelines have been summarized hereunder:

  • This Doctrine of Prospective overruling can only be invoked in matters arising under our Constitution.
  • This Doctrine of Prospective overruling can only be applied by Supreme Court, as this court has the constitutional jurisdiction to declare law that is binding to all the courts in India.
  • The specific version of retrospective to be applied is to be a matter of the Court’s discretion, “to be moulded in accordance with the justice of the cause or matter before it.”

The decision by Chief Justice Subba Rao which was supported by a majority of five judges, led to the emergence of the Doctrine of Prospective Overruling in India. This doctrine received a lot support from different jurists both from India and foreign. In the meanwhile it has received enormous criticism from many eminent scholars.

Coming on to the minority judgment in the Golak Nath case, they dissented with the view of the invocation of the doctrine. They basically rested their arguments on the Blackstonian theory which says that court pronounce the law and a declaration being the law of the land takes effect from the day the law enforced. They also said that it might be obnoxious to disagree with the established principle and displace it by the Doctrine of Prospective overruling.

Later in Waman Rao v Union of India, the doctrine of prospective overruling was used by the court. The question raised before the court was the validity of the Maharashtra Agricultural Lands (Ceiling of Holdings) Act, 1961.

In the case of Indira Sawhney v Union of India (Popularly known as Mandal Case) Justice Reddy decided that the ruling in this particular case will come into effect after five years from the date of Judgment.

Critical Analysis of Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

There is numerous appreciation of this doctrine in the same time it has been exposed to criticism too. As the minority judgment delivered in Golak Nath v Union of India strongly criticized this doctrine of Prospective overruling. They totally centered their argument by strongly advocating the use of Blackstonian view of law. H.M. Seervai heatedly condemned the invocation of Doctrine of Prospective overruling. He observed that it would further lead to reconsideration of Ultra Vires theory and said a law that is held invalid due to violation of Fundamental right is void ab initio and this makes no logic of applying Doctrine of prospective overruling as the questioned amendments were clearly violating the Fundamental rights.

The proposal provided in the Golak Nath case not only provides the guidelines for the usage Prospective overruling but also provide us with a logical and convincing explanation that how this doctrine will prove very fruitful for Indian legal Jurisprudence.

This doctrine not only shows the law making power of Judges but also in the same time it soundly strikes the balance with the Doctrine of Stare Decisis.


Overall, it can be concluded that by incorporating Doctrine of Prospective Overruling in the Judicial set up of India has proved to be very fruitful. This doctrine has provided enormous flexibility to the judicial discretion to Judiciary as far as India is concerned. In the same time proper caution should be taken while invoking this doctrine. Till now High courts has not been provided with this Doctrine. The proper adaption of this doctrine of Prospective overruling has provided fair justice to the citizens of our nation and is expected to provide them in future too.

Author: Dheeraj Diwakar,
Dr. Ram Manohar Lohia National Law University, Lucknow 1st year

Leave a Comment