Horlicks Ltd. & Anr. v. Heinz India (Pvt.) Ltd

Read this judgement to learn about the concept of forum non convenience as applicable in India and what the Delhi High Court held about its applicability in India.
CITATION 
COURTHigh Court of Delhi
JUDGES/CORAMJustice S.K. Kaul
DATE OF JUDGEMENT23.10.2009

Introduction

This case deals with the concept of ‘Forum Non-Convenience’. Forum Non Convenience is a concept generally used while talking about foreign courts and their jurisdictions. It is a legal doctrine that allows courts to dismiss a case presented to them if another forum (usually foreign forum) is better suited to deal with it. It is also termed as ‘Forum Convenience’ and ‘Forum Competence’. It is a recognized principle of Public International Law. In the United States and the United Kingdom, it is a doctrine applicable domestically and internationally. This case deals with the domestic applicability of the doctrine in India.

Facts

The facts of the case are as follows: This case pertains to two rival brands ‘Heinz India Pvt. Ltd’ and ‘Horlicks Ltd’ and their competing products in the market by the names of ‘Complan’ and ‘Horlicks’ respectively which are both dairy based beverage mixes for growth of children. Heinz had produced a series of advertisements for their product Complan which were disparaging towards the rival product. A suit was filed in Calcutta High Court wherein Horlicks was successful in getting an injunction to modify a part of the advertisement. Another set of litigation was filed in Madras High Court wherein also an injunction was granted. Another suit was filed in Bombay High Court with regards to the same. Finally, the current suit was instituted in the Delhi High Court.

Issues

The main issue in the case was: Whether the doctrine of ‘forum non Convenience’ can be applied here so as to reject the suit so that it can be decided in the Bombay High Court.

Summary of court decision and judgment

The Delhi High Court in this case did not apply the doctrine of ‘forum non Convenience’ and gave a judgment that the doctrine is not applicable to civil cases in India. The power to reject and return a plaint cannot be assumed by civil courts under section 151 of the Code of Civil Procedure. While arguing the case, both the parties cited various cases and texts which point to the use of the doctrine of ‘forum non convenience’ in other jurisdictions like that of United Stes, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia. The parties went so far to the extent of bringing up the history of the doctrine. However the court pointed out while giving the final judgment that the question in dispute was not about the existence of the doctrine but instead about if it would be domestically applicable in Indian civil cases. The defendants pointed out cases with regards to the usage of Section 151 of the Code and the grand power it conferred on civil courts in the country. The plaintiffs however argued on their right to choose a forum of their liking as long as it was a competent and appropriate forum. The court distinctively recognised the plaintiff’s right as he was the dominus litis of the owner of the suit. It is a principle embedded in stone by law and in practice, that the plaintiff should have free choice of where he wants to institute his action.  The Delhi High Court further reiterated this right of the plaintiff. It categorically said that the Civil Procedure Code gives no such right to the court. The aggrieved party may however approach the Supreme Court under Section 25 of the Code for transfer of suits if need be. The court also reiterated a 2 step enquiry process with regards to deciding if Forum Non Convenience would be applicable. The two step enquiry process is as follows-

  1. Whether there is an alternative competent forum (court), which is appropriate?
  2. Whether it would be meeting the ends of justice to transfer the parties to the alternative forum?
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The court thus ruled in favour of the plaintiff with regards to this particular issue thus saying that only if there is a very significant disadvantage or grave miscarriage of justice that would happen will it be acceptable to deny the plaintiff his right to choose a forum.

Analysis

This judgment can be considered to be a good judgement by the court. The court while giving this judgement has respected the rule of granting choice to the plaintiff to decide his forum. This judgment will have many positive implications. There can be a critique of the judgment according to which the court should have given an opposite judgment so as to avoid multiplicity of proceedings. However, the judgment is a good one if the bigger picture is seen. Protecting the rights of the plaintiff is of utmost importance. For each case wherein there is a demand of rejection by the way of application of this doctrine, the decision would be really harmful and restrictive in nature to the plaintiff. If two or more forums are appropriate for a case, it should be the discretion of the plaintiff where he wants to file the case. The balance of convenience while deciding if a case should be returned due to the application of this doctrine should be considered, but it should not be the only deciding factor as it might lead to defeating the purpose of justice. The doctrine of forum non Convenience should be used sparingly as it can cause great injustice to the plaintiff. The court’s decision conforms to the law too as including the doctrine under Section 151 (which is to be used cautiously and rarely anyway) would be judicial overreach.

Conclusion

The court’s decision, in this case, has been referred to many other future decisions like in the case of Union of India v. Videocon and thus proven to be a good precedent to decide cases regarding application of the doctrine. The doctrine is vital as in many cases it helps avoid multiplicity of proceedings and in cases of international law, it assists countries in respecting and recognizing each other. The doctrine as good as it is should still be used cautiously so as to not affect the rights of the plaintiff adversely.

Also Read  T. Devadasan v. The Union of India & Anr.