RES JUDICATA (Article Published in Vakeelara Vaahini)


Res judicata is a Latin expression that means “matter once adjudicated, cannot be re-adjudicated”. The doctrine of res judicata technically means that a matter in issue which has already been tried by competent court, then trial between the same parties in respect of the same matter shall not be allowed. It is a very important doctrine in civil justice system, it emphasizes that a subject matter of the suit which has already been decided, is deemed to be decided forever, and cannot be reopened by the same parties. The rule of res judicata is based upon the principle that no person should be vexed twice for the same cause of action.

Lord Blackburn in Lockyer v Ferryman[1] stated: “The object of the rule of res judicata is always put upon two grounds—the one public policy, that it is in the interest of the State that there should be an end of litigation, and the other, the hardship on the individual, that he should be vexed twice for the same cause.”

The doctrine of res judicata is based on three maxims:

1. Nemo debet bis vexari pro una et eadem causa - no man should be punished twice for the same cause

2. Interest reipublicae ut sit finis litium - it is in the interest of the state that there should be an end to a litigation

3. Res judicata pro veritate occipitur - a judicial decision must be accepted as correct.

Res Judicata and Estoppel

Under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 Section 11 defines res judicata. Res Judicata is a legal principle that prevents a court from taking action in a case that the same court or another court has previously heard and passed orders/decided on the same.

Under the Indian Evidence Act, 1872 Section 115 defines estoppel. Estoppel is a legal principle that prevents/stops parties from denying any averments/statements previously made by them.

Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (hereinafter referred to as CPC) deals with Res Judicata. The section reads as follows:-

         “11. Res judicata.—No Court shall try any suit or issue in which the matter directly and substantially in issue has been directly and substantially in issue in a former suit between the same parties, or between parties under whom they or any of them claim, litigating under the same title, in a Court competent to try such subsequent suit or the suit in which such issue has been subsequently raised, and has been heard and finally decided by such Court.”

In Swamy Atmananda and Ors. v. Sri Ramakrishna Tapovanam and Ors[2]  The Supreme Court observed:

"The object and purport of principle of res judicata as contained in Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure is to uphold the rule of conclusiveness of judgment, as to the points decided earlier of fact, or of law, or of fact and law, in every subsequent suit between the same parties. Once the matter which was the subject-matter of lis stood determined by a competent court, no party thereafter can be permitted to reopen it in a subsequent litigation. Such a rule was brought into the statute book with a view to bring the litigation to an end so that the other side may not be put to harassment.

The principle of res judicata envisages that a judgment of a court of concurrent jurisdiction directly upon a point would create a bar as regards a plea, between the same parties in some other matter in another court, where the said plea seeks to raise afresh the very point that was determined in the earlier judgment."

Essential conditions of res judicata

In Govindammal v. Vaidiyanathan[3] the Supreme Court referring to a plethora of judgments reiterated the principles for the applicability of the doctrine of res judicata. The Court cited Mahboob sahib v. Syed Ismail, (1995) 3 SCC 693 wherein the Supreme Court considering the applicability of the said doctrine between co-defendants held that four conditions must be satisfied namely-

  1. There must be a conflict of interest between the defendants concerned.
  2. It must be necessary to decide the conflict in order to give reliefs which the plaintiff claims.
  3. The question between the defendants must have been finally decided, and
  4. The co-defendants were necessary or proper parties in the former suit.

In Ishwardas v. the State of Madhya Pradesh and Ors[4], the Supreme Court held: "...In order to sustain the plea of res judicata it is not necessary that all the parties to the two litigations must be common. All that is necessary is that the issue should be between the same parties or between parties under whom they or any of them claim..."

Supreme Court – Striking balance through Res Judicata

In Inacio Martins, Deceased through LRs Vs. Narayan Hari Naik and Ors.[5] –the Supreme Court held “Courts shall apply principle of Res Judicata to strike a balance between competing interests and avoid clogging of legal system to assure an efficient judicial system.”

Res Judicata when applicable

In State of Madhya Pradesh Vs. Union of India (UOI)[6] the Supreme Court observed:  

“Even an erroneous decision on a question of law operates as res judicata between the parties to it. The correctness or otherwise of a judicial decision has no bearing upon the question whether or not it operates as res judicata. If the question of law is related to the fact in issue, an erroneous decision on such a question of law may operate as res judicata between the parties in a subsequent suit or proceeding, if the cause of action is the same.

In Chewang Dorjee Bhutia Vs. Ruth Haleem[7], the Court held that “In determining application of principles of res judicata, the court is not concerned with correctness or otherwise of earlier judgment. Once a judgment in a former suit attains finality, it binds the parties totally in all issues relating to the subject-matter of the suit or proceeding. In order to sustain a plea of res judicata, it is not necessary that all the parties to the litigation must be common. All that is necessary is that the issue should be between the same parties under whom they or anyone of them claim.

Res judicata applicable in Public Interest Litigation

In State of Karnataka and Ors Vs. All India Manufacturers Organization and Ors[8] the Supreme Court held: “…if the litigation is bona fide, a judgment in a previous public interest litigation would be a judgment in rem - It binds the public at large and bars any member of the public from coming forward before the court and raising any connected issue or an issue, which had been raised/should have been raised on an earlier occasion by way of a public interest litigation - Public interest litigation can act as res judicata.”

As has been observed by Halsbury, “the doctrine of res judicata is not a technical doctrine applicable only to records; it is a fundamental doctrine of all courts that there must be an end of litigation.[9]

When Doctrine of Res Judicata not applicable

In G.N. Nayak v. Goa University[10] the Supreme Court observed:

“The principle of res judicata was not applied where the first writ petition was filed on the ground of apprehended bias and was dismissed as withdrawn and the second petition was filed on actual bias. The subject matter of the earlier writ application was the selection which was due to be held on 13.09.1995 pursuant to the advertisement issued on 10.08.1994. The subsequent writ application was in connection with an advertisement issued in October 1995 and selection held on 20.05.1996. Here since the subject matter of both proceedings being different the second writ application is competent and the principle of res judicata does not apply.” 

In Kewal Kishan Aggarwal v. Board of Trustees of the Port of Mumbai[11]. the High Court of Bombay observed:

“A writ petition was filed seeking writ of mandamus directing the authorities under Major Port Trust to execute lease for 99 years, but the relief was refused. Subsequently, a civil suit was filed seeking similar relief. However, the aspect of interpretation of renewal clause was not considered by the writ Court, but in the civil suit interpretation of the renewal clause was also sought. It was held that as the said aspect was not heard and decided in the writ petition, the subsequent suit would not be barred by res judicata.”

In Raju Ramsing Vasave v. Mahesh Deorao Bhivapurkar[12].  

The principle of res judicata is not attracted when previous judgment was rendered by a Court without jurisdiction, or when the matter involves pure question of law or when a favourable judgment was obtained by committing a fraud on the Court. 

In Ram Shanker v. Vinay[13] the application of Res judicata in matrimonial matters the Allahabad High Court observed: A plea for enhancement of permanent alimony fixed under S. 25 of the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955 on the ground of altered circumstances is not hit by the principles of res judicata or estoppel because under the Hindu Law the right of maintenance is a substantive and continuing right and its quantum is variable from time to time.

The Supreme Court in the case of Govindammal v. Vaidiyanathan[14]  dismissed an appeal challenging the judgment of a Division Bench where it allowed a letters patent appeal filed by the plaintiff in a partition suit. The defendant herein claimed that since the defendant and father of the plaintiff were co-defendants in 2 original suits relating to the same subject property, wherein the court had decided in favour of the defendant’s title over the subject property. The defendant claimed as the court decided on the cases wherein the father of the plaintiff was a co-defendant with him. The Court reiterated that if a plaintiff cannot get his claimed relief without trying and deciding a case between the co-defendants, the court will try and decide the case in its entirety including the conflict of interest between co-defendants and the co-defendants will be bound by the decree. But if the relief given to the plaintiff does not require or involve a decision of any case between co-defendants, the co-defendants will not be bound between each other. In the instant case the Court found that all the above conditions were not present. Therefore no res judicata was applicable between the parties.

In the case of G.G. Patel v. Gulam Abbas[15], the Supreme Court has held that "it is well recognized that the dismissal of a proceeding by an authority not on merits but merely on account of a formal defect will not attract the applicability of the general principles of res judicata and will not debar the authority exercising concurrent jurisdiction from entertaining the subsequent proceedings for the same relief and passing proper order on merits."

In Sajjadanashin Sayed Md. B.E.Rdr. (D) By LRs Vs. Musa Dababhai Ummer and Others[16], wherein the Court has observed:

Matters collaterally or incidentally in issue

12.It will be noticed that the words used on Section 11 CPC are directly and substantially in issue. If the matter was in issue directly and substantially in a prior litigation and decided against a party then the decision would be res judicata in a subsequent proceeding. Judicial decisions have however held that if a matter was only collaterally or incidentally in issue and decided in an earlier proceeding, the finding therein would not ordinarily be res judicata in a latter proceeding where the matter is directly and substantially in issue.

18. In India, Mulla has referred to similar tests (Mulla, 15th Edn., p.104). The learned author says: a matter in respect of which relief is claimed in an earlier suit can be said to be generally a matter directly or substantially in issue. It may or may not be. It is possible that it was “directly and substantially” in issue and it may also be possible that it was only collaterally or incidentally in issue, depending upon the facts of the case. The question arises as to what is the test for deciding into which category a case falls? One test is that if the issue was “necessary” to be decided for adjudicating on the principal issue and was decided, it would have to be treated as “directly and substantially” in issue and if it is clear that the judgment was in fact based upon that decision, then it would be res judicata in a latter case (Mulla, p. 104). One has to examine the plaint, the written statement, the issues and the judgment to find out if the matter was directly and substantially in issue (Ishwer Singh v. Sarwan Singh and Syed Mohd. Salie Labbai v. Mohd. Hanifa). We are of the view that the above summary in Mulla id a correct statement of the law.”

Res Judicata in stopping endless litigation

In Supreme Court Employees Welfare Assn. v. Union of India[17], the Apex Court has stated that litigation would never end without the rule of res judicata, and the parties would be subjected to constant trouble, harassment and expenses.

In U.P. State Road Transport vs State Of U.P. And Another[18] , the Supreme Court held: “The principle of res judicata is based on the need of giving a finality to judicial decisions. The principle which prevents the same case being twice litigated is of general application and is not limited by the specific words of Section 11 of Code of civil Procedure in this respect. Res judicata applies also as between two stages in the same litigation to this extent that a court, whether the trial court or a higher court having at an earlier stage decided a matter in one way will not allow the parties to re-agitate the matter again at a subsequent stage of the same proceedings.”

In Ishwar Dutt Vs. Land Acquisition Collector and Ors[19] while hearing on a case of Land Acquisition, the Court referring to an earlier decision observed:

“In Hope Plantations Ltd. v. Taluk Land Board, Peermade and Anr[20] this Court observed: "Law on res judicata and estoppel is well understood in India and there are ample authoritative pronouncements by various courts on these subjects. As noted above, the plea of res judicata, though technical, is based on public policy in order to put an end to litigation. It is, however, different if an issue which had been decided in an earlier litigation again arises for determination between the same parties in a suit based on a fresh cause of action or where there is continuous cause of action. The parties then may not be bound by the determination made earlier if in the meanwhile, law has changed or has been interpreted differently by a higher forum..."


The circumstances that attract the application of the doctrine of res judicata are multiple and varied. The Supreme Court by way of various judgments has expounded the utility of the doctrine of res judicata. The process of needless litigation is reduced and endless litigation to get the desired outcome if a litigant’s case is decided against their interest is stopped. The courts can exercise their discretion to decide if a case/matter before them is barred or not. This helps in bringing finality to litigation and prevents the abuse of the process of law and courts and manipulate legal proceedings in order to rig judicial decisions to obtain favourable outcomes.

As succinctly held in the case Supreme Court Employees Welfare Assn. v. Union of India[21]: “…litigation would never end without the rule of res judicata, and the parties would be subjected to constant trouble, harassment and expenses.”

[1] [1877] 2 App Cas 519 at 530 (HL)

[2] MANU/SC/0287/2005 : AIR 2005 SC 2392

[3] 2018 SCC Online SC 2117

[4] MANU/SC/0021/1979: (1979) 4 SCC 163

[5] MANU/SC/0288/1993

[6] MANU/SC/0643/2014

[7] AIR 2021 Sikkim 12/ Lawyers’ Companion to Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 – Page 145

[8] MANU/SC/2206/2006

[9]  [Halsbury’s Laws of England, 3rd Ed., Vol. 15, para. 357, p. 185]”.

[10] AIR 2002 SC 790 (793) : (2002) 2 SCC 712 : 2002 SCC (L&S) 3501.

[11] AIR 2013 Bom 161: 2013 (5) Mah LJ 451                     

[12] (2008) 9 SCC 54

[13] AIR 1991 All 255 (DB)

[14] 2018 SCC Online SC 2117

[15] (1977) 3 SCC 179 (188)

[16] 2003 (3) SCC 350

[17] AIR 1990 SC 334

[18] MANU/SC/1009/2004 - (AIR 2005 SC 446)

[19] MANU/SC/0447/2005

[20] MANU/SC/0686/1998: (1999) 5 SCC 590

[21] AIR 1990 SC 334