This article is written by Vishal Singh, 3rd Year Student, Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Patiala, Punjab.
The Delhi High Court has recently passed a notable judgement, where it held that the promises made by a state authority like Chief Minister in a press conference are legally binding on the Government. The two concepts in this regard are Legitimate Expectation and Promissory Estoppel, which paved their way to upheld justice for the people who suffered due to the consequences of authorities not fulfilling their promises. Hence, the common saying that ‘promises are meant to be broken’ doesn’t fit the legal context.
This article argues that these two concepts should be interpreted liberally to uphold justice to the victims as the Chief Minister, in this case, is the highest authority of a state and his words spoken in public should have some weight and be legally binding on the Government.
This doctrine is found in the areas related to public law. It is basically applied to give relief to the people who, however not justified in the strict sense by law, had suffered due to the consequences of legitimate expectation. The question here arises whether the doctrine of legitimate expectation requires an actual government policy or it can be invoked without having a policy.
The Supreme Court in Brahmaputra Metallics, applied the doctrine of legitimate expectation, but there was a clear industrial policy, on the same line, which was introduced by the State in 2012. On the same point reliance can be placed on State of Punjab v. Nestle India Ltd., where the policy of abolishing purchase tax on milk originated from the speech of the Chief Minister, but the same was later announced as an official policy by the Finance Commissioner in the budget speech.
Further, in Bachhittar Singh, the court observed that writing something down in a file does not constitute an order or policy. Two conditions must be met before something can be considered an official policy of the State Government. First, the order must be issued in the Governor’s name, and secondly, it has to be communicated.
Finally, it can be said that in order to constitute legitimate expectation, there needs to be a sanction of law, the Government should take some steps on that regard. Just pious hope of citizens cannot amount to legitimate expectation. The Supreme Court enlarged the scope of said expectation in Madras City Wine Merchants’ Association, where in addition to express promise, the existence of regular or past practices can be a ground to invoke legitimate expectation. One reasonable restriction that can be put on the doctrine is that it would only arouse when the subject matter is within the powers of government.
The court of appeal in UK has interpreted the doctrine on wide angles where the Government is bound by every undertaking taken by its officials except not in the cases where the undertaking is in clear conflict with their statutory duty, or there is overriding public interest.
The expectation is different from anticipation and hope. But the interpretation of legitimate expectation need not to be so strict as to invoke only on those situations where a policy on the same line exists or is later implemented or need not be so lenient to be invoked only based on a speech. It should be interpreted to include situations where an active step on the expectation is taken by the Government, not resulting in the actual implementation of policy or in cases where speech is related to past practices. The said doctrine was found on the principles of fairness in government dealings. The legitimate expectation can be a proper ground for judicial review, but the relief is very restricted as the judiciary is not prone to interfere with the legislative functions of the government. Every expectation need not be introduced in the name of Governor. Expectations are not policies; they are legally binding rights of the party who suffered a loss due to the consequences of Legitimate Expectation. It is enough if some positive steps on the same line were taken by government before or after the cause of legitimate expectation arises.
It is an equitable doctrine which means that a promise is enforceable by law. The promise is binding in nature, even if it is made without formal consideration. Like legitimate expectation, which has its applicability in public law, the promissory estoppel doctrine affects private law.
The Supreme Court spell out some of the differences between both the doctrines in Brahmaputra Metallics (Supra). In English Law, the difference paved the way by separating them into two different fields, i.e., Public Law and Private Law. The legitimate expectation doctrine can constitute a cause of action and has a wider reach than promissory estoppel as it also takes official conduct into account. In Monnet Ispat, it was held that primary consideration in promissory estoppel is the existence of clear promise, and promisor acted in prejudice, but in the case of legitimate expectation, it is reasonableness and fairness of state action. The question here arises about the requirements to invoke promissory estoppel. In order to answer the question, we need to look back at the history and origin of the said doctrine.
The emergence can be traced from the judgement of the House of Lords in the year 1877 where Lord Cairns held that the parties cannot back down from their own promise.[i] Later the condition of legal relationship was introduced.[ii]
The foundation of both the doctrines in India was laid down in Collector of Bombay case, where the Government was held to be bound by its promise, on which the government has taken further steps. The concept was further crystallised in Motilal Padampat, where the doctrine was viewed as a principle of equity. It can be invoked only through a clear promise creating legal relations, and a party acted upon that promise. The doctrine has a great role to play in areas of administrative law as there is the vesting of large discretionary powers with the Administration.[iii]
Promissory estoppel doctrine should not be used by a person promising from a position of strength to take advantage of that position to cause injustice to the other party. The base of both the doctrines is related to principles of equity and fairness. The only requirement to invoke promissory estoppel is to have an expressed promise creating legal relations between the parties. There is no need to focus on the further act of the parties in that regard. Only the legal relation created between parties after a clear and unambiguous promise made by one of the parties is enough to show that the doctrine of promissory estoppel is binding.
It’s essential to narrow the gap between law and morality as also emphasized by Lon L. Fuller in his 1964 book, The Morality of Law, and the concepts of promissory estoppel and legitimate expectation are judicial contributions in that regard. Both doctrines are based on the axiom that the people trust the government. The said two doctrines are not absolute in nature. There are various conditions that need to be satisfied for the legal enforcement of rights claimed under these doctrines. The relief that the court can grant will depend upon the facts and circumstances of each case. But no strict rule should be applied in enforcing these doctrines. People often make promises in one situation, but in later events, they revert back from their words which may result in causing harm to the other party. If there is no provision in this regard or the related law is too cryptic, it will just result in denying or delaying the justice.
In the case of government leaders, they should always use precise words whenever speaking in public as they have a long-lasting impact on society, and whatever they speak in public, they should honour their published statements, resulting in fairness and reasonableness.
[i] Hughes v. Metropolitan Railway Company,  2 A.C. 439.
[ii] Central London Property Trust Ltd. v. High Trees House,  KB 130.
[iii] M.P. Jain and S.N. Jain, Principles of Administrative Law (8th edn, Lexis Nexis Publications 2017).