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Published: Fri, 02 Feb 2018
Suits Of A Civil Nature
Before we look at the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (hereinafter referred to as the CPC) with reference to the jurisdiction of civil courts in India, it would be interesting to note the meaning of jurisdiction. The CPC does not define the term jurisdiction. In fact, none of the substantive or procedural laws seeks to define the term “jurisdiction”.
Black’s Law Dictionary defines “jurisdiction” as “A court’s power to decide a case or issue a decree.” 
The Calcutta High Court in a full bench judgment in Hirday Nath v. Ram Chandra  sought to explain the term jurisdiction. It stated “… jurisdiction may be defined to be the power of Court to hear and determine a cause, to adjudicate and exercise any judicial power in relation to it; in other words, by jurisdiction is meant the authority which a court has to decide matters presented in a formal way for its decision.”
It went on to clearly demarcate three categories of jurisdiction- subject matter jurisdiction, i.e. whether the particular court in question has the jurisdiction to deal with the subject matter in question; territorial jurisdiction, i.e. whether the court can decide upon matters within the territory or area where the cause of action arose; and pecuniary jurisdiction, i.e. whether the court can hear a suit of the value of the suit in question.
Before going on any further, it must be mentioned that the jurisdiction of the court is not whether the court is entitled to pass a particular order or decree in a suit. It is whether the court has the right to hear the particular case. Further, also the jurisdiction is decided by the allegations made in the plaint, and not the defence’s arguments.
Section 9 of the CPC reads
“Courts to try all civil suits unless barred- The Court shall (subject to the provisions herein contained) have jurisdiction to try all suits of a civil nature excepting suits of which their cognizance is either expressly or impliedly barred.
A suit in which the right to property or to an office is contested is a suit of a civil nature, notwithstanding that such right may depend entirely on the decision of questions as to religious rites or ceremonies.
For the purposes of this section, it is immaterial whether or not any fees are attached to the office referred to in Explanation I or whether or not such office is attached to a particular place.”
The section clearly allows for the legislature by statute to expressly bar the jurisdiction of the Civil Courts. 
The general rule however is that the presumption would be made in favour of the existence of a right to sue in a Civil court, the exclusion of the same being an exception. 
The Supreme Court has laid down the rule that the plea of absence of jurisdiction can be raised and entertained at any stage.  In the absence of clarity in the point, the author believes that the plea of the absence of jurisdiction should be allowed only at any point of the case when in the Court of First Instance, and not in any appeals subsequent to it. Allowing such pleas in appeal might be misused by the appellant having lost the suit in the lower court. For instance, the losing party in the Court of First Instance may raise the plea in the appellate court in case he loses in the Lower Court, despite the suit commencing on his petition. This would be gross injustice to the other party and would also be against the principles of natural justice. Hence it must not be allowed to raise the plea at the appellate court.
Like jurisdiction, there is no definition of a civil suit in any Act. However, Explanation I makes it clear that the suit in which the principal question relates to a civil right is a civil suit.
In Sanker Naryan Potti v K Sreedevi  , the Apex Court held “…it is obvious that in all types of civil disputes civil courts have inherent jurisdiction as per Section 9 of the CPC unless a part of that jurisdiction is carved out from such jurisdiction, expressly or by necessary implication, by any statutory provision and conferred on any other tribunal or authority.” 
This in itself means that the Legislature, may, if it so desires, exclude certain portions of any law, or any law in toto by including a clause or provision in the Act itself.
Hence, the current position regarding the jurisdiction of Civil Courts is that they have inherent jurisdiction to hear into civil matters unless it is expressly or implied excluded by a statute.  The Supreme Court has held that the burden of proof for the exclusion of the jurisdiction of the court is on the party contending it. 
Another important point to make here is that the Supreme Court in a landmark judgement held that it is the Civil Courts itself that has the power to decide if it has the power to decide if it lacks, or has the jurisdiction to entertain a particular suit, even if on investigation, it is found that it does not. 
In the case of a statute that bars the jurisdiction of the Civil Courts, the Supreme Court in the case of State of A.P. v. Manjeti Laxmi Kanth Rao  devised a test for determination of the exclusion of the jurisdiction of Civil courts. First it is to be determined the legislative intent to exclude the jurisdiction “either explicitly, or by necessary implication”.  This means that the Court must first try to determine the precise reasons for the exclusion of the Civil Courts, and whether it is justified. However the justification is not open to judicial review. Once the court satisfies itself of the same, the court needs to determine whether the statute, which bars such jurisdiction provides for a suitable alternate remedy.  An alternate remedy in this respect must be capable of performing the functions that would have been performed by the civil court in the absence of such exclusion, and must be empowered to pass any order which the civil court in like circumstances would have passed. In the absence of such alternate mechanism, the jurisdiction of the Civil Court cannot be excluded. This view has also been accepted by the High Court at Calcutta in Bar Council W.B. v. A. Aughstir. 
However it was held in Balawwa v. Hasanabi  , that the jurisdiction of the Civil Court is ousted in respect of a tribunal created by a statute only so far as the reliefs that could be granted by the tribunal in question. The case was particularly in regards the Land Tribunal, but the author believes, that this is the correct implication and applies to all tribunals under different Acts. In this respect, it has been held by the High Court at Allahabad in number of cases  that a suit is barred of jurisdiction by the Civil Courts only if the cognisance of the entire suit is barred. This implies that if a certain suit arises, a part of which is not ordinarily to be tried by the Civil Court, due to express or implied exclusion, it is not true that the entire suit will be barred. Since the other points of law or reliefs sought are beyond the tribunal, or even if not beyond the special tribunal created under the Act, the jurisdiction of the civil court is not ousted and hence still has inherent jurisdiction to try the suit. It is not exactly clear if the special tribunal under the Act can pass a judgment in relation to the part of the case in which the jurisdiction of the civil court is excluded. If it can, does the civil court has to limit itself to the other points and is it limited by the decision of the tribunal? These are questions that are not yet completely clear.
The Supreme Court held that if any statute creates right, which does not pre-exist in Common Law, and creates a mechanism for enforcement of the same, both the right and the remedy being created uno flatu, excludes the jurisdiction of the Civil Court, even in the absence of an express provision.  This view has been accepted by the High Courts at Calcutta  and Gujarat.  The Apex Court in a decision has held that if the right in question is one in Common Law and not the creation of any statute, the jurisdiction of the Civil Court will not be excluded because the statute seeks to provide for an exclusive tribunal for the enforcement under the statute. 
The jurisdiction of a Civil Court is taken away when the statute in question clearly states that the decision of the tribunal that the particular statute creates is final.  This is subject to the fact that the tribunal thus created is sufficiently empowered to act as a Civil Court would in a similar situation. 
However the Supreme Court has held that there are two limitations to such exclusive jurisdiction of tribunals under any Act, meaning that the jurisdiction of the Civil Court will not be excluded in certain circumstances. One such situation would be where the Act states that the decision of the tribunal will be final for ‘the purposes of this Act’.  Another circumstance would be where the statute does not state that all questions regarding the special right created by the statute will be determined by the special authority created under the Act. 
Apart from being expressly barred by a statute, the jurisdiction of the civil court may also be impliedly barred. However to be considered as impliedly barred, the jurisdiction of the civil court must be necessarily barred. The Supreme Court has held in Shri Panch Nagar Parak v. Puru Shottam Das  that in the absence of any express exclusionary provision, the court needs to examine the purpose, scheme and relevant provisions of the Act in order to determine implied exclusion of the jurisdiction of Civil Courts.
An example of such implied exclusion would be a suit by a person whose property is attached under Code of Criminal Procedure, 1898 is impliedly barred from filing a civil suit and can only invoke clauses under that Act for remedies.
However it must be mentioned that the Supreme Court has held that ouster of the jurisdiction of Civil Court by a statute, whether explicitly or implicitly does not bar the court from examining whether the provisions of the Act have been complied with, or if the authority under the Act has acted in accordance with the principles of natural justice.  The High Court at Calcutta went on to explain further that in the event of any of the above being contravened, the Civil Court has the jurisdiction to strike down all such acts of the authority. 
It is interesting to note in this regard that the various High Courts also enjoy certain civil jurisdictions in their ordinary jurisdiction. Further under Article 228  , the High Court has the ability to call upon any matter pending in any lower court to decide it on its own, or to determine the points of law involved in it and return the same. In the absence of any detailed explanation to this section, it is to be implied that this power also extends to the Civil matters in lower courts. This implies that the civil jurisdiction of the High Court can generally not be ousted even in the absence of any express clause.
Another aspect to be considered while determining the jurisdiction of the Civil Court is the concept of Res judicata. Section 11 of the CPC reads “No Court shall try any suit or issue in which the matter directly and substantially in issue has been directly and substantially in issue in a former suit between the same parties, or between parties under whom they or any of them claim, litigating under the same title, in a Court competent to try such subsequent suit or the suit in which such issue has been subsequently raised’ and has been heard and finally decided by such Court.”
The principle of Res judicata ousts the jurisdiction of the Civil Courts where the matter in hand has been entertained in a suit by a competent authority previously. So it might be said that the jurisdiction of a Civil court is excluded if the suit has been decided earlier by a competent authority.
Hence it is clear that the jurisdiction of the Civil Court does not extend to all matters but might be limited in certain cases. However it has “inherent” jurisdiction to try all suits of a civil nature in the absence of any exclusion of the same.
However the author hopes that the Apex Court comes out clarifying the situation with the case regarding the jurisdiction of a Civil Court in which its jurisdiction is partly barred, expressly or impliedly and where a part of it is not.
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