So far, we've had about five posts on the Specific Relief (Amendment) Bill, 2018 (pdf) providing a virtually unbridled right to specific performance:
Why Should Specific Performance not be the Default Remedy: A Critique of the Recently Proposed Amendments
In this last post on the subject, we discuss why the amendment goes much beyond the Expert Committee's Report (pdf) on Specific Performance and is likely to lead to draconian results, especially for innocent promisors.
Whether the Bill Prioritises Specific Performance over Damages?
The Bill seeks to amend Section 10 such that the court's discretion is removed and specific performance is mandatorily ordered except in certain limited exceptions. Section 14. The heading of Section 10 is also sought to be changed from "Contracts which can be specifically enforced" to "Specific performance in respect of contracts". The Expert Committee also recommended the heading to be changed but the Committee's recommendation was to change it to "Specific performance and injunctions in respect of contracts". (See para 18.9).
As stated in an earlier post, the proposed amendment does not make specific performance as the first remedy but provides an option to the victim of the breach to either seek specific performance, or claim damages, or even claim the costs and expenses of substituted performance. In other words, the victim of the breach is empowered to decide the remedy of her choice.
Why does the Bill not Balance the Interests of the Victim with that of the Promisor?
In the previous post, we had argued that Contract law does a fine balancing act between the interests of the victim whose contract was broken and at the same time ensures that the promisor who broke the contract is not made to pay the price and suffer as a consequence of the breach: contract law's focus is not to punish the breaching party but to satisfy the expectations of the promisee. We request readers to access the previous post for the discussion on this fine balancing act, which was discussed with an example.
It is true, as was acknowledged in the previous post, that Indian contract law does a bad job of compensating the victim and within reasonable time. Hence, the recommendation of the Expert Committee to provide for specific performance is fine. Recognising the fine balancing act that we're talking about, the Committee has also sought to protect this equilibrium: A perusal of Para 18.13 of the Committee's Report would reveal that the second ground that is sought to be a ground for refusing specific performance is where the party seeking specific performance could reasonably obtain substituted performance from another source on comparable terms, including price and time. Please recollect the lengthy example we discussed in the previous post where it was possible for Gowri to obtain substituted performance from Shyamu but even so Gowri sought to obtain specific performance from the original promisor Ramu, which would have resulted in disastrous consequence (and possibly loss of life) for the promisor, and which the law could not have intended.
The Committee's recommendation is in line with international practice. For instance, Article 7.2.2(c) of the UNIDROIT Principles of International Commercial Contracts provides that specific performance cannot be sought where the promisee "may reasonably obtain performance from another source". A similar provision can be found in Article 9:102(d) of the Principles of European Contract Law. (See, Para 12.2.2. of the Committee Report.
Why is the New Section 14 beyond the Committee's Recommendations and Erroneous?
Despite the recommendations by the Committee, the Government has sought to exclude this requirement and provide instead that specific performance cannot be claimed where a party to the contract "has obtained substituted performance". The difference between the clause recommended by the Committee and the one in the proposed Section 14(a) is that the proposed one excludes only those contracts for which substituted performance has been obtained while the one recommended by the Committee excluded cases where substituted performance "could be reasonably" obtained. Courts would have had the leeway to eliminate the injustice likely to be caused by an order for specific performance had the recommendation of the Committee been accepted. Instead, the Government chose to adopt a draconian provision that could result in substantial injustice, as in the case of Gowri discussed in the previous post.
There is absolutely no reason or justification why the Government did what it did: disregard the fine balancing act sought to be maintained by the Expert Committee and replace with a provision is draconian and is likely to cause substantial injustice. This is especially true especially in cases involving poor, uneducated or illiterate litigants. Considering the corruption in the legal system, it would do well to provide such safeguards as recommended by the Committee. Also, the recommendation by the Committee would only further genuine cases of efficient breach theory (see this post) where transaction costs of obtaining substituted performance are reckoned in the calculation.
There is also another problem with Section 14 of the 2018 Bill. It states that the "following contracts cannot be specifically enforced" but Section 14(a) does not strictly speak of a contract but of a situation "where a party to the contract has obtained substituted performance..."
How to Remedy this Defective Provision?
There are two options to remedy this situation: the first option is for the Government to introduce amendments Clause 14(a) and incorporate the recommendations of the Expert Committee. The Bill is not yet an enactment; it has only been passed by Lok Sabha. The second option is to be exercised by the courts; in case the Bill in its current form is passed, the courts should construe Section 14(a) such that "has obtained substituted performance" would be read as "has or could reasonably obtain substituted performance."
"Court May Refuse Specific Performance"
In Section 14, the Committee recommended: "(1) The Court may refuse to grant specific performance or injunction in the following cases, and in no others..." Note that the term used is "may". This means that even if the grounds in Section 14(1) for refusing specific performance, the court could still enforce specific performance. However, this is not found in the Bill. Section 14 of the Bill simply starts off with the expression: "The following contracts cannot be specifically enforced..." Thus, it appears that the Government avoided the phrase used by the Committee. But does it mean that the Government chose to reject the Committee's recommendation on the issue? We are not too sure.
Committee's Report and the Bill does not go the Whole Way
In Para 11.9, the Committee recommended that Section 14 should have limited grounds on which specific performance could be refused. The Committee stated: "Such change will cast the burden of proving the grounds of refusal on the party against whom such relief is sought.." However, the Committee did not clearly cast the burden on the promisor while making its recommendations on the text of the amendments. Section 10 merely proposed that the victim would be entitled to specific performance, "unless relief can be refused under sections 14, 16 or 41..." (see Para 18.10). However, even this Section does not clarify who has to prove the availability of a reasonable source for substitute performance. Similarly Section 14 of the Bill also does not clearly cast the burden.
Of course, owing to Section 103 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, it could be argued that the the burden of proof of the availability of reasonable substitute would be on the person who would wish to be believe in its existence. It could also be argued that the plaintiff/ victim cannot be expected to prove the negative: that no reasonable substituted performance is available. On the other hand, the facts regarding substituted performance could very well be especially within the knowledge of the victim/ plaintiff, who then has to establish that no reasonable substitute was available as per the mandate of Section 106 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872.
We are not very sure if the Expert Committee sought to leave it for courts to come up with the onus: going by the recommendations of the Committee in para 11.9, it appears that the burden was supposed to be cast on the defendant. We are also not altogether sure if the Government consciously had a view to leave it to the courts to construe the provision and cast the onus accordingly.
We therefore suggest that Section 14 of the Bill be modified to state: The following contracts cannot be specifically enforced "All contracts can be specifically enforced unless the promisor in breach of the contract establishes that... Note that it is sufficient if the party breaching contract establishes one ground in Section 14.