What is the Doctrine of Prospective Overruling - Jurisprudence

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When America's legal system changed away from the age-old Blackstonian idea in the early 1900s, the doctrine of prospective overruling was first recognized. The concept took time to evolve in America, but it was quickly embraced by English jurists and courts. The Supreme Court of India recognized and acknowledged it for the first time in the case of I.C Golaknath vs. the State of Punjab (1967).

In this case, the Supreme Court established a number of criteria for applying the doctrine. These principles became precedent, and the doctrine was used by the Supreme Court several times over the years. Let us now look at how this doctrine has varied over time.

Also Read: What Are Writs And Different Types of Writs In India.

The Doctrine of Prospective Overruling

The doctrine of prospective overruling is a decision made in a particular case would have operation only in the future and will not carry any retrospective effect on any past decisions. 

  • According to the literal meaning of this language, "prospective" refers to something that only operates in the future, while "overrule" refers to overturning a precedent or ruling. 
  • It has been characterized as a departure from the Blackstonian perspective of law, which holds that judges should follow the Doctrine of Stare Decisis in courts and that a judge's power is limited to declaring law rather than making it. This viewpoint certainly verifies the precedent's retrospective rule.
  • The fundamental goal of courts in applying this Doctrine has been to achieve justice, as the principle of retrospective operation deprived an individual of a fair trial and outcome. 
  • The Doctrine establishes the parameters within which a court judgment must function. In plain English, it states that transactions undertaken before a judicial decision would not be considered illegitimate after the law changes. 
  • Non-application of the Doctrine, according to Justice Cardozo, would result in great injustice and would negate the dynamic nature of law. This Doctrine is a vital tool for adapting to the changing requirements of society and ensuring fair justice. 
  • Justice Subba Rao was a strong supporter of the concept, stating that its acceptance lays the groundwork for future transactions to recognize new and better norms.

The doctrine of prospective overruling in American jurisprudence

  • The doctrine of prospective overruling can be traced back to American jurisprudence. The Blackstonian idea was followed by the American court system before this doctrine was adopted and followed. Courts, according to this notion, did not have the authority to establish new laws, but only had the authority to follow, interpret, and expound existing laws. However, numerous American jurists were opposed to this notion, and their disagreement cleared the way for the doctrine of prospective overruling to be adopted.
  • According to American jurist George F. Canfield, it is the obligation of a court to recognize and promulgate a new rule if the old rule has become unsound or has lost its usefulness in today's legal system.
  • For the first time, the Supreme Court of the United States adopted the doctrine of prospective overruling in Great Northern Railway vs. Sunburst Oil and Refinery Co. (1932). The Court stated that by overturning a previous statute or judgment, it has the authority to give its decision prospective effect. The Court's argument for adopting this doctrine is that no party should suffer as a result of the Court's change in legislation or posture, i.e., if a judgment is granted retrospective effect, all transactions that took place under the prior law would be void. To avoid such an impact on previous transactions, a court's orders must be given prospective effect.
  • The United States Court at Hughes held in Chicot County Drainage District vs. Baxter State Bank (1940) that actions/transactions that took place under legislation that had been found unconstitutional should not be affected by such unconstitutionality. By issuing a new judicial ruling in this regard, the previous transactions cannot be modified or erased.
  • In Griffin vs. Illinois (1956), the Supreme Court of the United States declared that while deciding the constitutional legitimacy of a case, the court is not required to use a "either/or" approach. They have the option of approaching the matter in whatever way they see fit and issuing a judgment that will have an effect in the future.

Also Read: Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in India.

The doctrine of prospective overruling in English jurisprudence

  • English jurists such as Bentham and Austin criticized the Blackstonian view that was followed in England. According to Austin, the idea that law is created by a court and then miraculously exists is purely imaginary. Judges in courts of law have made law in the past and will continue to do so in the future.
  • The Blackstonian idea does not stand the test of time, according to the House of Lords in Practice Statement (Judicial Precedent) (1966), and the Courts are empowered to amend and diverge from existing laws and rulings as they see right. In Milangas vs. 
  • George Textiles Limited (1976), the House of Lords decided that applying the doctrine of prospective overruling to a claim for liquidated damages would not affect any prior transactions, but only future transactions from the date of the judgment.

The doctrine of prospective overruling cases 

Let's look at some cases which happened in past related to doctrine of prospective overruling. 

I.C. Golaknath vs. the State of Punjab

In this case, the Supreme Court recognized and established the doctrine of prospective overruling for the first time in India. Let's take a closer look at this case:


Both the petitioners and their families owned land in Jalandhar, Punjab, totaling over 500 acres. However, once the Punjab Security of Land Tenures Act of 1953 was passed, the government sent them a letter indicating that they could only maintain 30 acres of land each and had to give up the rest. Surplus land would be defined as the land that was to be given up. As a result, the enactment's constitutional legality was questioned on the basis of infringement of the following fundamental rights:

  • Article 19(1)(f) of the Constitution guarantees the right to acquire and hold property.
  • Article 14 of the Constitution guarantees the right to equality and equal protection under the law.
  • Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution guarantees the right to perform any profession.

Issues Related 

Is it true that the Parliament has the authority to legislate and change the fundamental rights given to Indian citizens by the Constitution? Let's look below.

Objections to the doctrine of prospective overruling have been raised.

  • There is no evidence that the doctrine of prospective overruling has been applied to cases involving ordinary law modifications. This doctrine can only apply to decisions involving constitutional law amendments.
  • In India, jurisprudence is based on precedent. It would be unwise to abandon this strategy in favour of an international doctrine.
  • Any law that violates basic rights is ruled void to the degree of the violation, according to Article 13 of the Constitution. The Supreme Court declared in Deep Chand vs. State of Uttar Pradesh (1959) that any law that breaches the Constitution's fundamental liberties is a still-born statute. As a result, any statute that has been found unconstitutional should be regarded void from the moment it is enacted, and the doctrine of prospective overruling would be in violation of the Constitution's Article 13 guideline.

Observations on how the doctrine of prospective overruling is applied

  • The Supreme Court initially proposed three requirements that had to be met before the doctrine of prospective overruling could be used. The following conditions have been listed:
    • Only in circumstances involving the interpretation of the Constitution can the doctrine of prospective overruling be used.
    • Only the Supreme Court has the authority to apply the doctrine of prospective overruling.
    • In accordance with the fairness of the cause or subject before it, the Court may amend the aspects of the prospective implementation of its judgment.
  • By using the aforementioned criteria, the Court came to the conclusion that implementing the principle of retrospective overruling would result in anarchy and have an impact on various transactions that took place under the previous regime. As a result, the doctrine of prospective overruling will apply in this case.
  • The existing constitutional amendments would not be altered by the Court's judgment. Only future changes would be required to reflect the Court's ratio in this case.

Also Read: Freedom of Press and Media Laws in India

Prospective Overruling, As Defined by the Courts

The Court also defined prospective overruling in the case of Sarwan Kumar v. Madan Lal Aggarwal [6].

"Under the doctrine of "prospective overruling," the law declared by the Court applies only to future cases, and its applicability to cases that have reached finality is preserved because repeal would otherwise cause hardship to those who had relied on it."

Furthermore, the apex court has established that the prospective declaration of law is a technique devised by the court to avoid reopening of previously resolved problems and to avoid duplication of processes. It's also a strategy for avoiding unnecessary litigation and uncertainty. All activities committed in violation of the prospective declaration of law prior to the date of declaration are judged legal by the very object of the declaration of law. This is done for the greater good of the public. As a result, the subordinate forums that are legally obligated to apply this Court's declaration of law are also obligated to apply such matters that will only emerge in the future. [7]

The Doctrine's Applications

It's worth noting that in Golak Nath's case, the Supreme Court decided that this doctrine can only be applied in situations arising under the Constitution, and that it can only be used by the Supreme Court in its discretion to shape the justice of the cause or matter before it.

However, it has recently been decided that the doctrine of prospective overruling can now be applied to the interpretation of regular statutes as well. [8] The tactic of prospective overruling was used in the cases of Waman Rao v. Union of India [9], Atam Prakash v. State of Haryana [10], Orissa Cement Ltd. v. State of Orissa [11], Union of India v. Mohd. Ramzan Khan [12], and Managing Director, ECIL v. B. Karunakar [13].

Indra Sawhney v. Union of India [14], commonly known as the Mandal Commission Case, the doctrine of prospective overruling is mentioned. In this instance, Justice Jeevan Reddy ordered that the decision will take effect five years from the date of the decision. As a result, the Court postponed the ruling's implementation for five years from the date of the verdict. This case finds not only a broadening of the doctrine's application but also a lengthening of the timeframe during which the ruling will be effective.

Furthermore, the Honourable Supreme Court declared in the case of Harsha Dhingra v. State of Haryana [15] that while it is undisputed that a court can overrule a judgement, there is no valid reason why it should not be limited to the future and not the past. Prospective overruling is both an element of constitutional policy and an extension of stare decisis, rather than judicial legislation.

In Narayani Bai v. State of Maharashtra [16], it was noted that "even the Judges for whom Subba Rao CJ spoke did not accept the doctrine of prospective overruling in all its implications as understood by the American Courts."

Final Words:

Incorporating this Doctrine into India's common law system has proven to be a successful accomplishment in its entirety. Though the application of this doctrine has given the Indian judiciary more leeway in exercising its discretion, prudence is required when using it. Extending the application of this doctrine to the High Courts is sometimes necessary to ensure that the goal of protecting rights and justice is not jeopardized. An in-depth grasp of all parts of this Doctrine has a positive socio-economic impact because it aids in sweeping away the turmoil and uncertainty that can be caused by the retrospective norm at times. J. Subba Rao's initiative in proposing this Doctrine has proven to be fascinating since it clarifies the rule of overruling and has had significant implications for the Indian legal system.


1. In which case the Supreme Court gave doctrine of prospective overruling?
2. What is retrospective overruling?