By Ishita Singh 12 Minutes Read


The independent Judiciary in India is the third limb of the Government which answers to the call for a guardian of rights. The main role of the Judiciary since its inception was application of the law of the land to the facts at hand and to provide justice to the parties who sought the jurisdiction of the court. However, with time, the judicial status started evolving and taking up other roles like interpretation of law, judicial review and judicial activism. Judicial review happens to be a weapon in the hands of the Judiciary which entails them to put some checks and balances on the functioning of the legislature and executive even though they are separate limbs.

Judicial review of administrative actions including various discretionary actions, allows the scrutiny and possible invalidation of a decision of any public authority brought to the court by the parties concerned. It is however pertinent to note here that, the trend of judicial decisions, renders this power of judicial review of the court to not be that of an appellate authority in association of an administrative decision. This means that the court refrains from reviewing the merits of the decision preserving the discretion od the administration. Rather, it is only limited to the three-fold classification of grounds namely: procedural impropriety behind reaching the executive decision, illegality, and irrationality of the same, as was held in the case of Council of Civil Services Unions v. Minister for the Civil Services. Arbitrariness and whether mala fides is the actuation behind the decision making are also some widely used principles resorted to in order to adjudicate an administrative action in question.

Irrationality as a ground, through years of progressive jurisprudence, can be equated with the principles of Wednesbury unreasonableness while adjudicating the legality of an administrative decision. This article will deal extensively with what the Wednesbury principle is, how it came into existence and the constitutional take on the principle.


The Wednesbury principle is a common law doctrine that can trace its origin back to the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation before the United Kingdom, Court of Appeal. The contentions of the petitioners majorly dealt with limits to the scope within which the defendants (a local authority) could impose conditions to be followed and how the decision of the defendant was unacceptable and is liable to be quashed. The court upheld the judicial position with respect to judicial review and observed that the court cannot overturn a decision merely on the ground that the court disagrees with the same. The Court would not go into the correctness of the choice made by the administrator open to him and the Court would not substitute its decision to that of the administrator. In relation to this scope of judicial review, a test was laid down by the court, fulfillment of which enables the judiciary to intervene with the decisions of the administration which is now named as ‘Wednesbury test’.

The court laid down various principles or points of reference while dealing with such cases in order to ascertain the grounds to intervene in the decision making of the administration. They are:

  1. Whether they have taken into account matters which ought not to be taken into account; or
  2. Neglected to take into account matters which ought to be taken into account; or
  3. Despite acting within the 4 corners of the matter at hand, the conclusion they came at was so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever have come to it.

It is when the facts qualify into any of the above-mentioned tests, the court can interfere with the decision. The power of court here would not be that of an appellate authority to override the decision but to solely look into the contravention of any law while reaching the decision if any. The principle of unreasonable action beyond the actions of a reasonable man is the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.


Reasonableness as a concept is subjective in nature owing to different minds having different views. Oxford dictionary defines reasonableness as ‘the fact of being fair, practical and sensible’. It is again subjective as what must be fair to a bench of judges might not correspond with the general crowd. Hence it becomes a matter which is to be interpreted based on rationale illustrated by the database of years of decided cases laying down various interpretations for the same. Reasonableness in case of exercise of a statutory discretion can be construed as the principle stating that the discretion cannot be exercised in a manner which can be held to be unlawful. Unreasonableness on the other hand would seem to exist where the authority exercising the discretion has taken a decision which is devoid of any plausible justification and any authority. It can also be inferred when it is so unreasonable that it might almost be construed as to be done in bad faith.

In the case of Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd. v Wednesbury Corporation, it was held that if the Decision on a competent matter is so unreasonable that no reasonable authority could ever come to it, then the courts can interfere. It is not based on what the court considers unreasonable. Rather, it is a measured as a decision that a reasonable man wouldn’t come to. It has also been expressed that the court does not have the duty to determine what is reasonable and what is not. Rather, the court has to see whether, acting within the four corners of the jurisdiction available to the authority, what would be the prima facie condition that no reasonable authority would seek to impose.

This principle is stricter than the existing test of unreasonableness-based on merely showing that a particular decision was unreasonable-as this test provides a parameter of a reasonable man’s thought process for comparison.


Under the ambit of judicial activism, Article 14 of the Constitution of India was interpreted in the light of arbitrariness. The courts in multiple cases have employed the principle of arbitrariness to invalidate any administrative action by declaring it violative of the fundamental right to equality. It was held in the case of Om Kumar v. Union of India that, for judging the arbitrariness of the order, the test of unreasonableness may be applied. The action of the State, thus, must be judged with extreme care and circumspection. This unreasonableness can be derived from the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.

In Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, it was held that, the order to impound a passport could be declared invalid under article 19(1)(a) and (g) if it was so drastic in nature as to impose unreasonable restrictions on the individual’ s freedom covered by these two clauses. This decision took view of the concept of unreasonableness, while observing that the scope of unreasonableness under article 19 was much wider than the principle of Wednesbury unreasonableness.


With the growth of the dynamic legal system, and the relation it builds with the status of a welfare state that India has assumed, a need was felt to develop this subjective and somewhat wide and vague concept into stricter and more comprehensible standard of reasonability. This led to the incorporation of the principles of proportionality in the law of the land. The test of proportionality lays down that it is not proportional where in the discretionary exercise of powers; there is no reasonable relation between the objective which is sought to be achieved and the means used to that end. This test is majorly result specific while comparing its intensity with that of the means. Standing to be stricter and more thorough, it has evolved from the Wednesbury principle itself.


The Wednesbury principle of unreasonableness is an old concept. Regardless of its longevity however, the importance of this principle cannot be discarded. This principle has been in usage through years of jurisprudence and has been the pivot for the development of the principle of proportionality as well.

It is hence safe to conclude that, while the Wednesbury test will ensure that courts do not improperly infringe upon the domain of the executive, the very introduction of proportionality test will initiate a change in judicial attitude and reservations towards a necessarily more rigorous inquiry being adopted as part of a context-specific variable intensity review.

Ishita Singh

I am a legal professional in making. With the aim of improving and honing my repertoire and gaining perspective, I hope to embrace all there is, to embrace and become a proud member of the legal fraternity.

    Related Posts