This article on ‘Doctrine of Sovereign Immunity: All you need to Know’ was written by Ayush Choudhary, an intern at Legal Upanishad.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity is a legal principle that precludes a country from being sued without consent. It is based on the theory of sovereignty and holds that the state, as a sovereign entity, cannot be subject to the jurisdiction of its courts or the courts of another state. It essentially refers to the immunity that governments enjoy from being sued in their own courts or those of other countries.
The doctrine can be traced back to English common law, which has been the subject of considerable debate and controversy over the years. This doctrine was introduced to protect the head of the country from any type of question from the members of the state.
The Origins of Sovereign Immunity:
The idea that the government cannot be sued in its own courts or those of other countries has a long history that goes back to medieval England. This concept was based on the idea that the king could do no wrong and hence could not be held liable for any of the actions taken by the government. As such, the king was considered immune from legal challenges in his own courts.
Over time, various exceptions were carved out of this broad principle, allowing the courts to hear cases against the government in a limited number of situations. One example was the development of the “petition of right,” which allowed citizens to petition the king directly to address grievances. Another exception was the creation of the Court of Exchequer, which had jurisdiction over claims against the government related to debts or taxes.
These exceptions, however, did little to erode the basic principle of sovereign immunity, which remained firmly entrenched in the legal system. This principle was carried over to the American colonies when they were established, and it was incorporated into the U.S. Constitution when it was drafted.
Sovereign Immunity and the U.S. Constitution:
The doctrine of sovereign immunity is rooted in Article III of the U.S. Constitution, which establishes the judicial branch of government. This article states that the judicial power of the United States shall extend to all cases arising under the Constitution, the laws of the United States, and treaties made under its authority.
This broad grant of jurisdiction, however, is limited by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which holds that the government cannot be sued in its own courts except where it has waived its immunity. This waiver can come in two forms:
- An express waiver, in which the government explicitly consents to be sued in a particular case, and
- An implied waiver, in which the government’s actions or conduct suggest that it has consented to be sued.
The Supreme Court has recognized a number of implied waivers over the years, including cases involving torts committed by government employees and contract disputes between the government and private parties. This has allowed individuals and companies to bring lawsuits against the government in certain circumstances, despite the doctrine of sovereign immunity.
Controversies Surrounding Sovereign Immunity:
Despite its long history and the important role it plays in the legal system, the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been the subject of considerable controversy over the years. One of the key criticisms of the doctrine is that it can create an imbalance of power between citizens and the government. Critics argue that the doctrine effectively shields the government from being held accountable for its actions in many cases, which can lead to the exploitation of the people.
Sovereign Immunity and the Indian Constitution:
In India, the concept of sovereign immunity emanates from the constitutional provisions contained in Article 300 of the Constitution of India. Article 300 of the Constitution conveys that the Union of India, as well as the states, can sue or be sued, but it does not provide for any comprehensive restriction on the sovereign immunity of the state.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity has been upheld in several cases decided by the Supreme Court of India. In the case of Veeravalli Seshagiri Rao v. Govt of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court of India, while affirming the doctrine of sovereign immunity, held that the state could not be sued in a civil court without the consent of the state. Similarly, in the case of HSRTC v. United India Insurance Company Ltd, the Supreme Court of India held that the doctrine of sovereign immunity barred the company from suing a state-owned entity without the state’s consent.
In recent years, the doctrine of sovereign immunity has also been successfully invoked in several cases involving state-owned companies. For example, in the case of State Trading Corporation of India Ltd v. LIC of India, the Supreme Court of India held that the State Trading Corporation of India Ltd, a state-owned company, was immune from being sued by the Life Insurance Corporation of India without the state’s consent.
However, there have been instances where the courts have clarified that the doctrine of sovereign immunity does not exclude the responsibility of the state or its agencies for their actions. In the case of V. Kishan Rao v. The State of Andhra Pradesh, the Supreme Court of India held that while the state has sovereign immunity, it cannot abuse it as a shield to escape its responsibility for the commission of torts.
Furthermore, in the case of Chairman, Tamil Nadu Electricity Board, Madras v. TNE Board Mazdoor Sangh, the Supreme Court of India held that the state could not claim immunity from the payment of wages to its employees. The court affirmed that the principle of sovereign immunity could not be applied to shield the state from its obligations as an employer of labour.
The concept of sovereign immunity has a crucial role in the Indian legal system, and its significance is not limited to state-owned entities. Recently, the Supreme Court of India expanded the ambit of sovereign immunity by affirming that foreign sovereigns have absolute immunity under the Indian legal system.
The doctrine of sovereign immunity is not possible to be followed today, in the era of constitutional freedoms and human rights. Therefore, a sovereign should not be sovereign because-
- It will make the government less accountable.
- Sovereign will be free to exploit the people.
- It will ultimately ruin the purpose of the Constitution.
And as thus the Indian is for the people, by the people and of the people and not for the head, of the head and of the head, a sovereign should mandatorily be held liable and then only the main purpose of the constitution will be fulfilled. And as a result-
- The government will be more accountable.
- The rights of people will not be affected.
- The basic principle of the Constitution will be upheld.
In conclusion, the doctrine of sovereign immunity has been an integral part of the Indian legal system for a long time. The principle of sovereign immunity prohibits the state from being sued without its consent, but it does not mean the state can evade its responsibilities. The Indian judiciary has played a significant role in balancing the state’s immunity and its obligations towards its citizens. Thus, completely immuning the sovereign or the head of the state from being sued will ultimately make it less accountable and thus as a result the citizens will be exploited. Therefore, a government or a sovereign should be responsible for its action and work.
List of References:
- Sofia Bhambri, Sovereign Immunity in India, S. Bhambhari & Associates, 25 May 2011, available at: https://www.sbhambriadvocates.com/post/sovereign-immunity-in-india
- Doctrine Of Sovereign Immunity, Lex Peeps, 25 May 2020, available at: https://lexpeeps.in/doctrine-of-sovereign-immunity/
- Sovereign immunity, Cornell Law School, available at: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/sovereign_immunity