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Kumari Alias Mary Francis & Another v/s Baby & Others

    RFA. Nos. 493 of 2012 & 465 of 2013
    Decided On, 03 August 2022
    At, High Court of Kerala
    By, THE HONOURABLE MR. JUSTICE P. SOMARAJAN
    For the Appearing Parties: K.P. Sreekumar, Advocate. For The Respondents: N. Ajith, P.B. Krishnan, Geetha P. Menon, P.B. Subramanyan, Advocates.


Judgment Text
1. The defendants in a suit for partition contested the suit by relying on three Wills - Exs.B1, B3 and B4 as that of their parents – father Paul and mother Sara. All these Wills were found genuine by the trial court and consequently, the suit for partition was dismissed, against which the plaintiff came up.

2. Ext.B1 is a registered Will dated 2/11/1971 jointly executed by Paul and Sara. The suit was filed after the lapse of more than 30 years. Necessarily, the question came up for consideration is when a Will or Codicil is produced from proper custody having an oldage of more than 30 years, is it permissible to draw presumption as to its execution, whether it is necessary to summon atleast one of the attesting witnesses in proof of its execution and when the testament is found to be more than 30 years oldage and produced from a proper custody, whether the propounder can wriggle out of the liability to prove the testament in accordance with the mandate under Section 68 of the Act by resorting to the presumption that can be drawn under Section 90 of the Indian Evidence Act. The learned counsel for the appellant/plaintiff relied on the decision in Bharpur Singh & Ors v. Shamsher Singh (2009 (3) SCC 687) in support of his argument that there cannot be any application of Section 90 of the Evidence Act pertaining to a Will or testament irrespective of whether it is registered or not. But it is against the rationale (ratio) applied by the Apex Court in several decisions including the decision rendered by a Constitution Bench. Hence, it is necessary to ascertain the principle of binding precedent especially when contrary views were taken by a Full Bench and a Division Bench of this Court.

3. The issue came up before the Privy Council as early as in the year 1947 in Munnalal v. Mt. Kashibai (AIR 1947 PC 15), wherein it was held that the execution and attestation of a Will of more than 30 years old, when produced from proper custody, can be presumed. Later on, a three Judge Bench of the Apex Court had affirmed the legal position in Kalidindi Venkata Subbaraju & Ors. v. Chintalapati Subbaraju & Ors. (AIR 1968 SC 947). It was followed by this Court in Narayanan Radhakrishna Menon v. Narayanan Sukumara Menon (2018 (2) KLT 553). Subsequently, it was settled by a Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community and Another v. and State of Maharashtra and Another (AIR 2005 SC 752) that a decision delivered by a larger Bench is binding on any subsequent Bench of lesser or co-equal strength. It is further laid down that a Bench of lesser strength cannot doubt the correctness of the view of the law taken by a Bench of larger strength and summed up as follows:-

“The law laid down by Supreme Court in a decision delivered by a Bench of larger strength is binding on any subsequent Bench of lesser or co-equal strength. A Bench of lessor quorum cannot doubt the correctness of the view of the law taken by a Bench of larger quorum. In case of doubt all that the Bench of lesser quorum can do is to invite the attention of the Chief Justice and request for the matter being placed for hearing before a Bench of larger quorum than the Bench whose decision has come up for consideration. It will be open only for a Bench of co-equal strength to express an opinion doubting the correctness of the view taken by the earlier Bench of co-equal strength, whereupon the matter may be placed for hearing before a Bench consisting of a quorum larger than the one which pronounced the decision laying down the law the correctness of which is doubted.”

(emphasis supplied)

4. It has been further reiterated by a three Judge Bench of the Apex Court in New India Assurance Company Ltd. v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Pvt. Ltd. (AIR 2016 SC 86) by holding that the judgment delivered earlier in point of time shall prevail over the judgment rendered by a coequal Bench on a later point of time.

5. The abovesaid principle is subject to the exception that when in a subsequent pronouncement, after taking into consideration the previous judgment, re-defines or explains the width of principles laid down in the previous judgment, the subsequent pronouncement has to be followed (M.Natarajan v. State [(2008) 8 SCC 413]). It must be understood that there is no scope to re-write or reconsider the legal position earlier laid down by a larger Bench or a co-equal Bench, except for the purpose of explaining the width and length of the principle laid down in the previous judgment. Very recently, another Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in Dr. Shah Faesal and Ors. v. Union of India and Another [(2020) 4 SCC 1] had reiterated the legal position by explaining the rule of per incuriam, relevancy and binding precedent of ratio decidendi laid down in an earlier judgment of co-equal Bench or a larger Bench. There will not be any binding precedent regarding obiter dicta. The Constitution Bench of the Apex Court had considered in this context, the doctrine of binding precedent with its utmost importance in the administration of judicial system by referring yet another five Judge Bench of the Apex Court in Chandra Prakash v. State of U.P. [(2002) 4 SCC 234] and also the law laid down in National Insurance Co. Ltd.v. Pranay Sethi (2017) 16 SCC 680 : (2018) 3 SCC (Civ) 248 : (2018) 2 SCC (Cri) 205]. The view that the subsequent decision shall be declared per incuriam only if there exists a conflict in the ratio decidendi of the earlier judgments has got approval by a five-Judge Bench of the Apex Court in Punjab Land Development & Reclamation Corpn. Ltd.v.Labour Court (1990) 3 SCC 682).

6. But, without noticing the law laid down by the Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra), a Division Bench of this Court in Sampath S. Pawar v. Ibrahim (2013 (3) KLT 722) had laid down the law that when conflicting views are taken by Benches of co-equal strength, the decision later in point of time will prevail over the earlier one by referring to a Full Bench decision of this Court in Raman Gopi v. Kunju Raman Uthaman (2011 (4) KLT 458 (FB)}. In fact, the abovesaid contrary view was taken by the Full Bench of this Court after referring the legal position laid down by the Constitution Bench in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra). But the reference was only for the purpose of binding precedents of the larger Benches over the Benches of lesser strength. It was not referred in relation to “ratio decidendi” settled with respect to conflicting decision rendered by co-equal Benches. A mere citing of a decision or a legal position settled in an earlier judgment, not for the purpose either to follow or dissent, cannot be said to have referred so as to exclude the same from the mischief of “per incuriam decis”. In order to avoid the mischief, the “ratio decidendi” settled on a particular legal issue by the earlier larger or coequal Bench must be referred in relation to that particular “ratio decidendi”. Hence, the legal position laid down by the Full Bench without referring to the law laid down in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra) in relation to conflicting decision and the binding precedents of co-equal Benches would stand “per incuriam decis”. The decision rendered by the Division Bench in Sampath's case (supra) by following the Full Bench decision in Raman Gopi's case (supra) without noticing the decision of the Constitution Bench in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra) also would stand per incuriam decis. So also, the decision rendered by a Single Bench of this Court in Hameed v. State of Kerala 2008 (1) KLT 534) by taking a contrary view, though referred the decision of the Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra) cannot be held good law.

7. The observation made by the Apex Court in Official Liquidator v. Dayanand and Others [(2008) 10 SCC 1] assumes importance at this juncture. The relevant portion is extracted below for reference:

“There have been several instances of different Benches of the High Court not following the judgments/orders of coordinate and even larger Benches. In some cases, the High Courts have gone to the extent of ignoring the law laid down by this Court without any tangible reason. Likewise, there have been instances in which smaller Benches of this Court have either ignored or bypassed the ratio of the judgments of the larger Benches including the Constitution Benches. These cases are illustrative of non-adherence to the rule of judicial discipline which is sine qua non for sustaining the system.”

8. Further, in view of the legal position settled by the Constitution Bench of the Apex Court in Central Board of Dawoodi Bohra Community's case (supra) and Dr.Shah Faesal's case (supra), the earlier decision rendered by a Full Bench of this Court in Joseph v. Special Tahsildar (2001 (1) KLT 958 (FB)) holding that when two decisions of co-equal Benches of the Apex Court are conflicting, the decision later in time to be binding, cannot be held good law. The decision rendered by the Apex Court in Bharpur Singh's case (supra) without noticing the earlier legal position settled by a larger Bench (three Judge Bench) of the Apex Court in Kalindindi Venkata Subbaraju's case (supra), hence cannot be held to have binding precedent.

9. The original of the document, though not marked, was produced from the proper custody and it is having an oldage of more than 30 years, hence presumption applies. There is failure on the part of the plaintiff to rebut the presumption and no satisfactory evidence was adduced in that behalf. Further, in the instant case, though the original was produced, only a certified copy of the Will was marked as Ext.B1 through DW2, who is the son of one of the attesting witnesses. He was summoned to prove the signature affixed as that of his father as an attesting witness, after his death. When no attesting witness is available for the purpose of proving the due execution of the Will in question either due to death or unsoundness of mind or incapability of giving evidence, the parties would stand governed by the succeeding section, Section 69 of the Indian Evidence Act and would stand relieved from the rigour of summoning atleast one of the attesting witnesses to prove its execution as mandated under Section 68 of the Act. Further, under the succeeding Section – Section 69 of the Act, the requirement and the extent of proof is to show that atleast attestation of one of the attesting witnesses is in his handwrit

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ing and that the signature of the person executing the document is in the handwriting of that person. It is not at all necessary to prove and establish the signatures found affixed as that of both/all the attesting witnesses, when the case falls under Section 69 of the Act. The oral evidence tendered by DW2 by admitting the signature affixed as that of his father, one of the attesting witnesses to the document and the fact that the original document, which is of more than 30 years oldage, was produced from the proper custody, would sufficiently discharge the initial burden that lies on the propounder, especially when nothing was brought out to discredit his evidence. Apart from the examination of DW2, Ext.X1 extract of thumb impression register was also summoned through the Sub-Registrar – DW3. The Will was registered while one of the testators was hospitalized. Nothing was brought out to show any mental ailment, incapacity or unsoundness of mind suffered by any of the testators, the father and mother. Necessarily, the suit for partition by the plaintiff, who is not a legatee under the Will, will not stand. Both the appeals hence fail, dismissed. No costs.
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