Framing of issues in a civil suit seems like a routine thing and perhaps this is why its actual purpose and significance is sometimes lost or misunderstood in the “routine” of practice. Once in a while it helps to take a step back and ask oneself the true meaning of a certain procedure which is taken for granted. Setting aside preconceived notions as to the object of and procedure for framing of issues, let’s try to cull it out from Order 14 of the CPC.
The title of the Order reads “Settlement of Issues and Determination of Suit on Issues of Law or on Issues Agreed Upon”. Therefore, a suit is determined based on issues of law or other issues agreed upon by parties in a suit. But what is an “issue”? Although the CPC does not define the term, sub-rule 1 of Rule 1 of Order 14 says that issues arise when a material proposition of fact or law is affirmed by one party and denied by the other. In other words, both parties must disagree on a material proposition of fact or law.
Additionally, the Evidence Act also defines “Facts in issue” to mean and include any fact which, either by itself or in connection with other facts, has a bearing on a right or liability asserted or denied in a suit. The Explanation to the definition further says that when a Court records an issue of fact under the CPC, the fact to be asserted or denied in response to such as issue, too would be treated as a fact in issue.
As to what constitutes a material proposition giving rise to an issue, Sub-rule 2 of Rule 1 states that material propositions are those propositions of law or facts which a plaintiff must allege in order to show a right to sue or a defendant must allege in order to constitute his defence. Simply put, a material proposition is one which advances a party’s case factually or legally. Sub-rule 3 mandates that each material proposition on which the parties disagree shall be framed as a distinct issue. Therefore, it could be said that propositions of fact or law which do not further a party’s case are not material and therefore ought not to be framed as issues. However, what is the consequence when a proposition of fact or law, although material, is not framed as an issue despite the parties being at variance with each other?
On this, the Supreme Court has held that non-framing of an issue does not vitiate the proceedings as long as the pleadings of parties bear out that the issue exists and both parties have led evidence at trial to prove their respective contentions on the issue. In other words, a Court can rule on an issue even if it has not been specifically framed, so long as it is material to the determination of the suit.
How does a Court go about framing an issue? Sub-rule 5 of Rule 1 lays down the procedure for this. It says that at the first hearing of a suit, the Court shall, after reading the plaint and the written statement, and after examination under Order 10 Rule 2 and after hearing the parties or their counsels, ascertain upon what material propositions of fact or law the parties are at variance, and shall thereupon proceed to frame and record the issues on which the right decision of the case appears to depend. What does this mean? It simply means that a Court shall understand the respective contentions of parties based on their written pleadings and oral submissions (both being pleonasms) and distil only those propositions of fact and law on which the parties differ and which are “material” for the adjudication of the suit. It is to be understood that the materiality being referred to in sub-rule 5 does not mean evaluation of the tenability of the contentions of parties on factual or legal propositions. It simply refers to testing an issue for its relevance to the determination of the case.
For instance, in a suit for patent infringement, if there is no dispute between the parties as to the ownership of the patent by the plaintiff, there is no point in framing an issue on it since the parties are not at issue on the question of ownership. Therefore, the question of ownership is not a material proposition on which the parties disagree. If, however, in a given case the plaintiff claims to be an exclusive licensee of the patentee and the defendant disputes the assertion on factual and legal grounds, the maintainability of the plaintiff’s action against the defendant has to be framed as an issue (under the Patents Act only a patentee or the exclusive licensee may institute a suit for infringement). Clearly, the issue is material to the enforcement of the patent and hence the adjudication of the suit.
The procedure of framing of an issue needs to be understood with clarity since sometimes there is a tendency to read more into the mere framing of an issue under Order 14 than is warranted. Framing of an issue under Order 14 does not tantamount to the Court taking a position with respect to the contentions of parties on a material question of fact or law. It is a mere act of charting the trajectory and contours of the trial so that the progress of the trial is not waylaid by a slugfest on irrelevant or immaterial issues which have no bearing on the adjudication of the rights and liabilities of the parties. A good decision to read on framing of issues is Makhanlal Bangal v. Manas Bhunia which although delivered by the Supreme Court in the context of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, is relevant since the procedure under the CPC applies to the statute.
Having discussed the procedure and significance of framing of issues under Order 14 of the CPC, in the next post I will compare and contrast it with the framing of an issue under Section 124 of the Trademarks Act in relation to the invalidity of a trademark registration.