Nepal: (Un)Necessary – ‘doctrine of necessity’

My this article below is published in Telegraph Nepal today. You can read it from here:

THE term ‘doctrine of necessity’ has found an unwarranted place in Nepalese legal development despite not having any acceptable legacy behind it. The doctrine itself has a very dubious purpose to serve and the outcome of application of this doctrine would be debated for a long time. The doctrine, in its simple understanding, is a validating tool for those illegal, extra-legal, and invalid administrative state actions and these actions get validity from one’s understanding of necessity, mostly based on his/their momentary understanding of what was the necessity of that time. Therefore, there would be divergence in views even among the legal luminaries. One’s view of what was necessary at a time can always be contested by other set of legal luminaries.

Therefore, in this article, my effort has been to make a jurisprudential fathoming of legacy that ‘doctrine of necessity’ inherits and to examine whether we have acted judiciously to patronize this doctrine in Nepalese legal development.

The doctrine helps to bestow legality on any extra-legal actions if such actions are found to be to restore legal orders and if, at the give point of time, the state machineries would have no alternative viable recourse available. Therefore, most often, the courts have given breath to this principle when constitutional validities of states are to be upheld even when such state actions sans constitutionally permitted limits.

The credit for giving birth to this principle goes initially to the medieval jurist Henry de Bracton (c.1210-1268), and later, justification of the doctrine has been advanced by another great authority, William Blackstone. The legal maxim that has been credited to Bracton goes like this: “……………that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity…………………”

The constitutional lawyers should be troubled in Nepal as the doctrine seems to be gaining unshakable ground to justify diverse extra-legal state actions. In a judgement delivered in April 2010, the Supreme Court of Nepal, in a matter relating to parliamentary hearings for appointment in constitutional bodies, had opined that all the articles of Interim Constitution of Nepal can be amended as per the doctrine of necessity except those relating to democratic republic, human rights and an independent judiciary. The reasoning though may sound to be a political victory for the supremacy of parliament; it comes with the imminent danger of having serious implications in the future.

Once again, the discourse on this doctrine has gained momentum since the Hon’ble Supreme Court of Nepal has invoked this principle in another verdict while upholding the extension of tenure of Constituent Assembly (CA). The court cited and applied the doctrine to uphold the Ninth Amendment of the Interim Constitution of Nepal. The court verdict has, therefore, upheld the extension of the tenure of the CA by three more months on May 28, 2011. The Supreme Court reasoned that the objective of CA was to draft and to promulgate a new constitution and to conclude the peace process and that has not been achieved yet. Therefore, the doctrine has to be applied to uphold the actions taken by CA when the twin tasks are yet to be performed, reasoned the Apex Court.

A brief overview to world history shows that the Chief Justice Mohammad Munir of Pakistan had invoked the doctrine to validate the actions of Governor General Ghulam Mohammad who had dismissed the Constituent Assembly and appointed a Council of Ministers in 1954. While putting breath in the doctrine in modern times, Justice Munir in Pakistan in 1954 relied on Bracton’s maxim ‘that which is otherwise not lawful is made lawful by necessity’, and on the Roman law maxim urged by Jennings, ‘the well-being of the people is the supreme law’.

In countries like Nigeria and in Fiji, this doctrine were invoked and applied whenever the state had acted against the constitution. There were striking similarities in all these states at the time when the doctrine was invoked – dysfunctional parliamentary democracy. Therefore, this will inevitably leads us to the question – whether doctrine of necessity is a necessary doctrine when there is a breakdown of parliamentary democracy.

In the instant case, another immediate question that needs to ponder is how long the doctrine of necessity can save the functioning of CA or any such extra – legal actions of state actors in the future. Dealing with the issue vis – a – vis functioning of CA, what if, the CA fails to perform its functioning of promulgation of new constitution but based on this doctrine; it keeps on extending its term for another dozen times. By adopting this doctrine by highest judiciary of the country, we have placed ourselves in a very precarious situation where CA may not function as per the mandate given by people and the constitution but whatever it does going outside the Constitution would be held constitutional. Then, what incentives CA members would have even to be serious for constitution making when their terms and tenures are guaranteed by ‘doctrine of necessity’. There would be some argument to say that the doctrine of necessity alone cannot extend the tenure of CA for more than six months. However, the so called sovereign CA has all the incentives to amend the provisions in Interim Constitution and remove such barriers where if the mighty CA wishes, it can extend its term by innumerable times.

At this juncture, the first and foremost issue among the legal experts should be the implications of borrowing such principle into Nepalese Legal System which can have serious ramifications on fundamental points concerning the rule of law and constitution, the retrospective exercise of legislative powers by the law makers, and the yardstick and benchmark to adjudge the legality of actions in the future.

What we have to understand is the constitution is not only a legal document but also a political, social, economical testament and vision of a nation. Constitution embodies the hope and aspiration of the people of many generations and expected to be so in the time period yet to come. Therefore, CA, which has received the mandate from the people, will be exercising its power in various capacities and its functioning are not merely discharge of legal and constitutional functions. In this scenario, in my humble opinion, the court should have rescued itself to adjudge on the matter of extension of CA tenure, as the issue will have different dimensions including political and courts are not to interfere on such political powers. It is not only the implications of the outcome is political but the role of CA is itself is different from parliament under democratic set up. As the ‘doctrine of necessity’ comes with enormous peril of being misused and susceptible to tampering in future, it would be difficult for courts to stay away from the controversy inasmuch as the present verdict could be taken as stamping on the power of CA to extend its term, sometimes based on its own sweet will and fancy.

However, if we have to take a positive from the verdicts rendered, a silver lining can be that the court has upheld the supremacy of the parliament/CA and this supremacy could have been upheld even without resorting to ‘doctrine of necessity’. When there is enormous pessimism on people for not having stable functioning parliamentary democracy with able executive, it can only be hoped that the verdict, though may be founded on uncanny reasoning would be taken as a positive steps towards stable supreme parliament. If people are able to take this positive, another positive hope that comes to our mind naturally would be, hopefully, we will soon see our New Constitution.

© Rajib Dahal. The Author is an Advocate. He can be reached at


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