Principles of res-judicata between co-defendants

The Supreme Court of India recently examined the applicability of res judicata between co-defendants. The Civil Appeal1 was filed by the Union of India challenging an order passed by the Andhra Pradesh High Court whereby an order passed by the Special Court, Hyderabad (hereinafter referred to as “the tribunal”) under the Andhra Pradesh Land Grabbing (Prohibition) Act, 1982 (hereinafter referred to as “the Act”) was not interfered with.

The Respondents alleged that their father had purchased 2 acres 27 guntas of land in Survey No. 299/2 from one Shaik Ahmed under two registered sale deeds dated 12.12.1959. The father of the Respondents was put in possession thereof. Out of the total land purchased by the father of the Respondents, 7 guntas of land was taken over for the purpose of widening of road and remaining part i.e. 2 acres 20 guntas (12100 sq. yards) was held by him. It was further alleged that the Respondent’s father sold the land measuring 4971.5 sq. yards out of 12100 sq. yards in Survey No. 299/2 with specific boundaries via registered sale deed dated 20.3.1964. The remaining part of the land i.e., 7128.5 sq. yards was however retained by their father.

It was alleged that the Military Contract Committee started constructing sheds on the land and thus, the purchasers filed original suit against the Appellant, State of Andhra Pradesh and the father of the Respondents. The purchaser sought possession of the land purchased or in the alternative, recovery of sale consideration paid to the father of the Respondents. The suit was decreed declaring the purchasers as title holders of the suit property. Thereafter, the purchasers filed for execution wherein they entered into a written compromise where the Appellants proposed for exchange of the defence land with the decretal land. In terms of such compromise, possession of land measuring 4971.5 sq. yards was delivered to the decree holder.

Subsequent to the death of the father of the Respondents, they invoked the jurisdiction of the Tribunal under Section 8 of the Act alleging that the land measuring 7128.5 sq. yards is the land grabbed by the Appellant. The Tribunal observed that the Appellant was aware that this land which was delivered to the purchasers in the compromise was mentioned as boundary to the decretal schedule property, belonged to the father of the Respondents and when a finding is given in the suit that State Government which gave land to the Appellant has no title and that the father of the Respondents and Shaik Ahmed had title, there is no need for them to file another suit for declaration of the title. Without establishing title to the remaining land, the Appellants entered into the compromise. The Andhra Pradesh High Court affirmed the order of the Tribunal.

One of the issues before the Apex Court was whether the Order passed in the original suit filed by the purchasers operates as res judicata. The Respondents contended that the decree in the suit is in respect of entire property purchased by the father of the Respondents, though the claim of the purchasers was restricted to the land purchased by him. Therefore, such decree would operate as res judicata.

The Division Bench came to a finding that the Appellant had entered into a settlement with the purchasers by which some of the land in possession was given to them in execution with the leave of the Court and such action would show the assertion of title by the Appellant so as to enter into exchange of land in satisfaction of the decree. The father of the Respondents was party in the execution proceedings but has not objected to the exchange and therefore leads to an inference that the father of the Respondents was not in possession and has not asserted the title or possession over the remaining land measuring 7128.5 sq. yards. The Bench further went on to observe that the father of the Respondents had the opportunity to raise a claim in respect of land measuring 7128.5 sq. yards. However, no such claim was raised. The Respondents might and ought to have made grounds of defence in the original suit to claim possession of the land measuring 7128.5 sq. yards. The consequence would be that failure to raise such defence or counter claim would be deemed to be constructive res judicata in terms of Explanation IV of Section 11 of the Civil Procedure Code. But for res judicata to apply, the matter in the former suit must have been alleged by one party and either denied or admitted, expressly or impliedly by the other. Since the issue in the suit was restricted to 4971.5 sq. yards, the decree would be binding qua to that extent only. Thus, it was observed that the principle of res judicata will not apply if the subject matter of the suit is not same as that of earlier suit.

The Bench reiterated that there are three principles of res judicata as between co-defendants: (1) There must be a conflict of interest between the defendants; (2) it must be necessary to decide this conflict in order to give the plaintiff the relief he claims; (3) the question between the defendants must have been finally decided. The Bench held that this test too is not satisfied as in order to grant relief of possession to the purchasers in the suit, it was not necessary to decide the issue of the remaining land between the father of the Respondents and the Appellants. Scrutinizing the evidence on record, the Bench found that the Appellants are owners and in possession of the suit land. Thus, the appeal was allowed.

1. CIVIL APPEAL NO. 2049 OF 2013

By - Lakshmi Raman