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Harpal Singh Vs. Ashok Kumar and Ors. - (Supreme Court) (15 Dec 2017)

Validity of a decree can be challenged before an executing court only on ground of an inherent lack of jurisdiction which renders the decree a nullity



In 2002, a suit was instituted by the Respondents for a permanent injunction, alleging that the Defendants to the suit were threatening to interfere with the possession of their lands. The suit was dismissed by the Civil Judge, holding it to be barred by the provisions of Section 185 (1) of the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954. The Trial Court held that, the Plaintiff had failed to place any registered document on record to establish his ownership in respect of the land. Moreover, in the view of the Trial Court, it was necessary for the Plaintiffs to first seek a declaration from the revenue Court as bhoomidars upon which alone an injunction could be sought. Subsequently, on 31st December, 2005 the Respondents instituted a suit under Section 6 of the Specific Relief Act against the Appellant, alleging that, the Appellant had forcibly taken possession of the land. The suit was decreed by the trial court ex-parte on 30th May, 2009, upon which execution was initiated by the Respondents as decree-holders.

The petition sought to challenge an order of the Additional District Judge rejecting the objections of the Appellant in the course of the execution of a decree. A learned Single Judge of the High Court of Delhi, by a judgment rejected a petition under Article 227 of the Constitution of India. High Court rejected the submission that, the decree obtained under Section 6 of the Specific Relief Act was a nullity on the ground that, the suit was barred by Section 185 of the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954.

The Appellant submitted that, since an earlier suit seeking a permanent injunction was dismissed by a competent civil court in view of the provisions of Section 185(1) of the Delhi Land Reforms Act 1954, and since the land is 'agricultural' in nature, the civil court did not have jurisdiction in the matter. The decree was a nullity and this defence, it was submitted, could be raised in execution.

The position of law which has been consistently followed is that where the land has not been used for any purpose contemplated under the Land Reforms Act and has been built upon, it would cease to be agricultural land. Once agricultural land loses its basic character and has been converted into authorized/unauthorized colonies by dividing it into plots, disputes of plot holders cannot be decided by the revenue authorities and would have to be resolved by the civil court. The bar under Section 185 the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954 would not be attracted. This position of law has not been controverted in the present proceedings.

The validity of a decree can be challenged before an executing Court only on the ground of an inherent lack of jurisdiction which renders the decree a nullity. In Hira Lal Patni v. Sri Kali Nath, this Court held that, the validity of a decree can be challenged in execution proceedings only on the ground that the court which passed the decree was lacking in inherent jurisdiction in the sense that it could not have seisin of the case because the subject-matter was wholly foreign to its jurisdiction or that the Defendant was dead at the time the suit had been instituted or decree passed, or some such other ground which could have the effect of rendering the court entirely lacking in jurisdiction in respect of the subject-matter of the suit or over the parties to it.

In Sunder Dass v. Ram Prakash, this Court held that, the law is well settled that an executing Court cannot go behind the decree nor can it question its legality or correctness. But there is one exception to this general Rule and that is that where the decree sought to be executed is a nullity for lack of inherent jurisdiction in the court passing it, its invalidity can be set up in an execution proceeding. Where there is lack of inherent jurisdiction, it goes to the root of the competence of the court to try the case and a decree which is a nullity is void and can be declared to be void by any court in which it is presented. Its nullity can be set up whenever and wherever it is sought to be enforced or relied upon and even at the stage of execution or even in collateral proceedings. The executing court can, therefore, entertain an objection that the decree is a nullity and can refuse to execute the decree. By doing so, the executing court would not incur the reproach that it is going behind the decree, because the decree being null and void, there would really be no decree at all.

In the present case, the finding of fact which was arrived at by the executing Court in the course of its decision on the objection to execution is that, the land had ceased to be agricultural land and was not being used for purposes contemplated under the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954. The suit which was decreed on 30th May, 2009 was a suit under Section 6 of the Specific Relief Act which in any event, did not require a determination of the question of title. The earlier suit was a suit for injunction. The finding of fact which has been arrived at is to the effect that, the land in question had ceased to be agricultural in nature on the date of the institution of the suit. Hence, it cannot be held that, the decree of the trial Court was a nullity. The land was not governed, as a result, by the Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954 since it was not agricultural and the bar under Section 185 of Delhi Land Reforms Act, 1954 was not attracted. There was no inherent lack of jurisdiction and the objection to the execution of the decree was without foundation. There is no merit in the civil appeal, which is accordingly dismissed.

Relevant : Hira Lal Patni v. Sri Kali NathMANU/SC/0041/1961: (1962) 2 SCR 747, Sunder Dass v. Ram Prakash MANU/SC/0368/1977


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