By: Shivendra Pratap Singh
09/27/2022

Cause of action

The cause of action is a bundle of facts which the court requires from the plaintiff to prove in order to get relief. This is the basis or foundation of bringing a lawsuit in the correct forum, court or tribunal. The court has three kinds of jurisdictions i.e. territorial, pecuniary and subject matter. Lack of any of them shall prohibits the court to proceed further. 

Section 20 of the Civil Procedure Code defines cause of action. Mulla commenting on cause of action in the following words:

Cause of action.—The expression “cause of action” has acquired a judicially settled meaning. In the restricted sense, “cause of action” means the circumstances forming the infraction of the right or the immediate occasion for the action. In the wider sense, it means the necessary conditions for the maintenance of the suit, including not only the infraction of the right, but the infraction coupled with the right itself. Compendiously the expression means every fact by which it would be necessary for the plaintiff to prove, if traversed, in order to support his right to the judgment of the court.

P. Ramanatha Aiyar in Advanced Law Lexicon, 3rd Edn., Vol. 1, has defined the cause of action in the following words:

Cause of action” has been defined as meaning simply a factual situation the existence of which entitles one person to obtain from the court a remedy against another person. The phrase has been held from earliest time to include every fact which is material to be proved to entitle the plaintiff to succeed, and every fact which a defendant would have a right to traverse. “Cause of action” has also been taken to mean that particular act on the part of the defendant which gives the plaintiff his cause of complaint, or the subject-matter of the grievance founding the action, not merely the technical cause of action.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines the cause of action in the following words “A group of operative facts giving rise to one or more bases for suing; a factual situation that entitles one person to obtain a remedy in court from another person.”

Cause of action in respect of writ

This Court had occasion to consider the cause of action in the context of Article 266 of the Constitution and has explained the expression “cause of action” in a large number of cases. In ONGC v. Utpal Kumar Basu (1994) 4 SCC 711 the Supreme Court has laid down that:

Clause (1) of Article 226 begins with a non obstante clause — notwithstanding anything in Article 32 — and provides that every High Court shall have power ‘throughout the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction’, to issue to any person or authority, including in appropriate cases, any Government, “within those territories” directions, orders or writs, for the enforcement of any of the rights conferred by Part III or for any other purpose. 

Under clause (2) of Article 226 the High Court may exercise its power conferred by clause (1) if the cause of action, wholly or in part, had arisen within the territory over which it exercises jurisdiction, notwithstanding that the seat of such Government or authority or the residence of such person is not within those territories. 

On a plain reading of the aforesaid two clauses of Article 226 of the Constitution it becomes clear that a High Court can exercise the power to issue directions, orders or writs for the enforcement of any of the fundamental rights conferred by Part III of the Constitution or for any other purpose if the cause of action, wholly or in part, had arisen within the territories in relation to which it exercises jurisdiction, notwithstanding that the seat of the Government or authority or the residence of the person against whom the direction, order or writ is issued is not within the said territories. 

It is well settled that the expression “cause of action” means that bundle of facts which the petitioner must prove, if traversed, to entitle him to a judgment in his favour by the court. 

In Chand Kour v. Partab Singh 1888 SCC OnLine PC 14; (1887-88) 15 IA 156 : ILR (1889) 16 Cal 98, at p. 102 Lord Watson said 

the cause of action has no relation whatever to the defence which may be set up by the defendant, nor does it depend upon the character of the relief prayed for by the plaintiff. It refers entirely to the grounds set forth in the plaint as the cause of action, or, in other words, to the media upon which the plaintiff asks the court to arrive at a conclusion in his favour.

Question of jurisdiction shall be decided on the averments made in the plaint

Therefore, in determining the objection of lack of territorial jurisdiction the court must take all the facts pleaded in support of the cause of action into consideration albeit without embarking upon an enquiry as to the correctness or otherwise of the said facts. In other words the question whether a High Court has territorial jurisdiction to entertain a writ petition must be answered on the basis of the averments made in the petition, the truth or otherwise whereof being immaterial. To put it differently, the question of territorial jurisdiction must be decided on the facts pleaded in the petition.

It was further held that the collocation of the words “cause of action, wholly or in part, arises” seems to have been lifted from Section 20 of the Code of Civil Procedure. This Court also quoted the definition of “cause of action” given by Lord Esher in Read v. Brown [Read v. Brown, (1888) LR 22 QBD 128 : 58 LJQB 120 : 60 LT 250 (CA)] in para 39. In paras 38, 39 and 41, the following was laid down : (Navinchandra N. Majithia case [Navinchandra N. Majithia v. State of Maharashtra, (2000) 7 SCC 640 : 2001 SCC (Cri) 215] , SCC pp. 654-55)

“Cause of action” is a phenomenon well understood in legal parlance. Mohapatra, J. has well delineated the import of the said expression by referring to the celebrated lexicographies. The collocation of the words ‘cause of action, wholly or in part, arises’ seems to have been lifted from Section 20 of the Code of Civil Procedure, which section also deals with the jurisdictional aspect of the courts. As per that section the suit could be instituted in a court within the legal limits of whose jurisdiction the ‘cause of action wholly or in part arises’. Judicial pronouncements have accorded almost a uniform interpretation to the said compendious expression even prior to the Fifteenth Amendment of the Constitution as to mean ‘the bundle of facts which would be necessary for the plaintiff to prove, if traversed, in order to support his right to the judgment of the court’.

In Read v. Brown [Read v. Brown, (1888) LR 22 QBD 128 : 58 LJQB 120 : 60 LT 250 (CA)] Lord Esher, M.R., adopted the definition for the phrase “cause of action” that it meant : (QBD p. 131)

“every fact which it would be necessary for the plaintiff to prove, if traversed, in order to support his right to the judgment of the court. It does not comprise every piece of evidence which is necessary to prove each fact, but every fact which is necessary to be proved.”

Even in the context of Article 226(2) of the Constitution this Court adopted the same interpretation to the expression ‘cause of action, wholly or in part, arises’ vide State of Rajasthan v. Swaika Properties (1985) 3 SCC 217.

A three-Judge Bench of this Court in ONGC v. Utpal Kumar Basu (1994) 4 SCC 711 observed that it is well settled that the expression “cause of action” means that bundle of facts which the petitioner must prove, if traversed to entitle him to a judgment in his favour. Having given such a wide interpretation to the expression Ahmadi, J. (as the learned Chief Justice then was) speaking for M.N. Venkatachaliah, C.J. and B.P. Jeevan Reddy, J., utilised the opportunity to caution the High Courts against transgressing into the jurisdiction of the other High Courts merely on the ground of some insignificant event connected with the cause of action taking place within the territorial limits of the High Court to which the litigant approaches at his own choice or convenience. The following are such observations : ONGC v. Utpal Kumar Basu, (1994) 4 SCC 711

If an impression gains ground that even in cases which fall outside the territorial jurisdiction of the court, certain members of the court would be willing to exercise jurisdiction on the plea that some event, however trivial and unconnected with the cause of action had occurred within the jurisdiction of the said court, litigants would seek to abuse the process by carrying the cause before such members giving rise to avoidable suspicion. That would lower the dignity of the institution and put the entire system to ridicule. We are greatly pained to say so but if we do not strongly deprecate the growing tendency we will, we are afraid, be failing in our duty to the institution and the system of administration of justice. We do hope that we will not have another occasion to deal with such a situation.

In Kunjan Nair Sivaraman Nair v. Narayanan Nair (2004) 3 SCC 277 the Supreme  Court explained the expression “cause of action” and has quoted with approval the cause of action as defined by Halsbury’s Laws of England in paras 16 and 17 : (SCC p. 286)

The expression “cause of action” has acquired a judicially settled meaning. In the restricted sense cause of action means the circumstances forming the infraction of the right or the immediate occasion for the action. In the wider sense, it means the necessary conditions for the maintenance of the suit, including not only the infraction of the right, but the infraction coupled with the right itself. Compendiously the expression means every fact which would be necessary for the plaintiff to prove, if traversed, in order to support his right to the judgment of the court. Every fact which is necessary to be proved, as distinguished from every piece of evidence which is necessary to prove each fact, comprises in “cause of action”.

In Halsbury’s Laws of England (4th Edn.) it has been stated as follows:” Cause of action” has been defined as meaning simply a factual situation the existence of which entitles one person to obtain from the court a remedy against another person. The phrase has been held from earliest time to include every fact which is material to be proved to entitle the plaintiff to succeed, and every fact which a defendant would have a right to traverse. “Cause of action” has also been taken to mean that particular act on the part of the defendant which gives the plaintiff his cause of complaint, or the subject-matter of grievance founding the action, not merely the technical cause of action.

Recently pointed out the Supreme Court in Nawal Kishore Sharma v. Union of India [Nawal Kishore Sharma v. Union of India, (2014) 9 SCC 329] , that the question, whether or not cause of action, wholly or in part, has arisen within the territorial limit of any High Court, shall have to be decided in the light of the nature and character of the proceedings under Article 226 of the Constitution of India. In order to maintain a writ petition, the petitioner has to establish that a legal right claimed by him has been infringed by the respondents within the territorial limit of the Court’s jurisdiction.

Forum Non Conveniens 

Forum non conveniens has been defined by P. Ramanatha Aiyar’s Advanced Law Lexicon, 3rd Edn. in the following words:

Forum non conveniens.—The principle that a case should be heard in a court of the place where parties, witnesses, and evidence are primarily located.”

Black’s Law Dictionary defines forum conveniens in the following words: “Forum conveniens.—The court in which an action is most appropriately brought, considering the best interests and convenience of the parties and witnesses.”

The Supreme Court in Kusum Ingots & Alloys Ltd. [Kusum Ingots & Alloys Ltd. v. Union of India, (2004) 6 SCC 254] has also referred to the principle of forum conveniens. The following was stated in para 30 : (SCC p. 264)

We must, however, remind ourselves that even if a small part of cause of action arises within the territorial jurisdiction of the High Court, the same by itself may not be considered to be a determinative factor compelling the High Court to decide the matter on merit. In appropriate cases, the Court may refuse to exercise its discretionary jurisdiction by invoking the doctrine of forum conveniens. [See Bhagat Singh Bugga v. Dewan Jagbir Sawhney [Bhagat Singh Bugga v. Dewan Jagbir Sawhney, 1941 SCC OnLine Cal 247 : AIR 1941 Cal 670] , Madanlal Jalan v. Madanlal [Madanlal Jalan v. Madanlal, 1945 SCC OnLine Cal 145 : AIR 1949 Cal 495] , Bharat Coking Coal Ltd. v. Jharia Talkies & Cold Storage (P) Ltd. [Bharat Coking Coal Ltd. v. Jharia Talkies & Cold Storage (P) Ltd., 1997 CWN 122

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Shivendra Pratap Singh

Advocate (Lucknow)

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