CAUSE OF ACTION: DEFINITION & ROLE IN CIVIL PROCEEDINGS by -Abhishek Arul & Srijita Chattopadhyay
The term “Cause of Action ” is an important term that is often used in conjunction with numerous aspects of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908, such as institution of a suit, res judicata, joinder of parties and splitting up of claims. However nowhere in the code has the term “cause of action” been defined. The term has thus been left to the mercy of judicial interpretation and it has been the duty of the courts to provide an adequate definition for the lawyers to use in their daily practices. Cause of action is an essential and integral part of civil procedural law and a poor understanding of the same can have disastrous consequences such as the dismissal of the suit. Without a proper cause of action, the chances of miscarriage of justice increase exponentially and therein lies the need to study the expression cause of action and understand the term as well as looking into when the term accrues.
The study shall limit itself as to understanding what the term cause of action aims to convey and what constitutes a cause of action in a civil suit of law, in India. It shall further aim to study how cause of action functions with respect to other legal doctrines, in particular misjoinder and splitting up of claims.
This study aims to provide a better understanding to the concept of cause of action as a whole, covering what constitutes a cause of action in numerous suits and when it begins to accrue. This study further aims to clarify the concept and provide a comprehensive definition, thereby facilitating understanding of the same and aiding in the avoidance of mistakes in the institution of suits.
The term cause of action is one that holds a great amount of weight in the legal field. Particularly in civil court rooms, the term cause of action commands attention and importance for without it, a suit cannot be maintained in a court of law. As per C.K.Takwani2, cause of action is one of four essential elements required in the institution of a suit, and without it, a suit cannot stand.
For a term to hold the amount of importance as it does, this begs the question, what does the term “Cause of Action” mean and what does its usage entail? In layman’s terms, it can be stated to be the reason or rather the purpose with which a person approaches a court of law.
If an individual possesses a civil right, and if that right has been infringed, that individual is allowed to approach a civil court of law in order to remedy the wrong that has been committed against him. It is important to note however that the cause of action is not the ability to approach the court of law. The ability to approach the court of law is not the cause of action. Rather it is a consequence of the cause of action, and it is often deemed to be the “right of action”.
The cause of action is not the ability to approach the court of law but rather the reason why you go to the court in the first place. When you institute a civil suit, there must be multiple parties, a particular subject matter which is in dispute, a relief claimed and above all, a cause of action.3 The cause of action is an essential element as without it, there cannot be a dispute in the eyes of law, and therefore no relief can be claimed or granted.
The key term here is “in the eyes of law”, for disputes may exist between parties, however that does not necessitate them to be recognized by a court of law. Therefore it can be stated that the cause of action is the reason why the courts are required to look into the dispute between the parties, or in other words, the ingredient that makes a civil dispute recognizable by law.
The infringement of the bundle of rights which a person possesses and the reason for which the court should adjudicate the matter may be stated as the cause of action. However the aforementioned is merely the tip of the iceberg. As the cause of action is a part of procedural law, the intricacies behind it are great as are the complexities that accompany it, and shall be studied in detail as the paper progresses further.
2. Cause of Action : Definition, Importance, Instances
2.1. Definition of Cause of Action
Cause of action as a term is harder to define and it is rare that statutes go out of their way to define the term owing to the integral role it occupies in the institution of a suit. If cause of action were to be defined in definite terms, the scope for miscarriage of justice, done by way of stating that cause of action did not exist, would rise exponentially. Therefore it appears that most law-makers prefer not to define the term in its entirety, an approach adopted by the framers of the Code of Civil Procedure in India.
Therefore for the most part, the modern day understanding of what constitutes a cause of action is heavily derived through judicial interpretation of the term. As there isn’t an exact definition provided thus far, it is more appropriate to state that the term has been described by the judiciary to be, “a bundle of essential facts necessary to the plaintiff to prove before he can succeed or the facts that give the plaintiff right to relief against the defendant”.4
It has also been described as “every fact which is necessary to establish to support a right or obtain a judgement5”6, “the facts which give occasion for and forms the foundation of the suit”. In Om Prakash Srivastava v. Union of India, cause of action was termed to be a bundle of facts which give cause to enforce the legal inquiry for redressal in a court of law. It is a bundle of facts, which, taken with the law applicable to them, gives the plaintiff a right to claim relief against the defendant. It must include some act done by the defendant since in the absence of such an act no cause of action would possibly accrue or arise.” The expression has acquired a judicially settled meaning.7
To ascertain whether the facts averred by the plaintiff would or would not constitute a part of the cause of action, one has to consider whether such facts constitute a material, essential or integral part of the cause of action. If it is, it forms a part of the cause of action. In determining the said question, the substance of the matter and not the form thereof has to be considered. 8 In a restricted sense it means the circumstances forming the infraction of the right or the (Alchemist Ltd. v. State Bank of Sikkim, 2007) (S.K.Khanna v. State of Haryana, 1994) (State of U.P. v. Nawab Hussain, 1977)immediate occasion for the reaction. In the wider sense it means the necessary conditions for the maintenance of that suit, including not only the infraction of the right but also the infraction coupled with the right itself.9 The ambit of the term can be widened to include well founded apprehension of harm, to maintain a petition under
Articles 32 and 226 of the Constitution.10
It is important to note that the cause of action has nothing to do with the defence set up by the respondent/defendant, nor does it depend upon the character of the relief prayed for by the plaintiff.
2.2. Lack of Cause of Action
As stated earlier, as per C.K.Takwani11, cause of action is one of four essential elements required in the institution of a suit, and without it, a suit cannot stand. If in a suit for declaration, any cause of action has not been disclosed, it is liable to be dismissed, as seen in the case of S.K.Khanna (Dr) v. State of Haryana, where plaintiffs approached the trial court stating that they had been illegally demoted from Senior Lecturers to Lecturers, whereas facts indicated that they had willingly joined as Lecturers, it was held by the Supreme Court that no cause of action was disclosed.12
Similarly, in a case where cause of action is based on a certain document such as in a suit for specific performance of agreement of sale of property, and the said document or registered copy is not produced, the suit will be dismissed as held in the case of Church of Christ Charitable Trust & Educational Charitable Society v. Ponniamman Educational Trust.13
2.3. Cause of Action and Jurisdiction
The cause of action plays an important role in the determination of territorial jurisdiction of the court. This role was highlighted in the case of State of Bihar v. Barakar Engg. & Foundry Works Ltd., where the plaintiff-respondent had its registered office at Calcutta, and was a registered dealer under Bihar Sales Tax Act, 1947. The plaintiff issued cheques to the defendant-appellant towards due sales tax. The cheque was encashed at Calcutta. The Sales Tax authorities passed assessment orders in respect of relevant years. One appeal by the plaintiff, the Assistant Commissioner of Sales Tax, Chotanagpur, Bihar, set aside the assessment orders. Subsequently plaintiff filed an application for refund of tax which was refused on the ground that assessment was validated by Sales Tax Laws Validation Act. The suit was filed on the original side of Calcutta High Court for refund on the ground that as the cheques were cashed in Calcutta, the cause of action arose at Calcutta. 14
“The Supreme Court in the above case stated that the appellant was mistaken in ascertaining when and where the cause of action arose. According to the Supreme Court, “the entire cause of action in respect of the claim for refund on the basis of the appellate authority’s order arose only from the State of Bihar and no part of the cause of action for claiming the amount in question could have arisen out of Bihar. The fact that the plaintiff based his claim on three alternative grounds, for one of which alone a part of the cause of action can at best be said to have arisen in Calcutta but not for others, cannot confer jurisdiction on the Calcutta High Court to try the suit on the basis of grounds in respect of which no part of the cause of action arose in Calcutta . The cause of is that which relates to a tenable plea”.15
Furthermore as per the amendment of Article 226 of the Constitution, cause of action has been made an additional ground to confer jurisdiction on a High Court under Article 226. If cause of action arises in whole or in part, a writ petition can be instituted in the High Court within the territorial jurisdiction of which the cause of action arises.16
2.4. Instances of Cause of Action
The importance of cause action, “as can be inferred from above, is that it forms the basis of the suit which has been filed. It is necessary for the petitioner to state the cause of action for the maintenance of the suit.”
In particular with the same, “the importance at this juncture is to ascertain when the cause of action in the particular suit began to accrue, for this plays an important role in ascertaining jurisdiction, limitations and damages.”
In order to establish the same it is necessary to know what would constitute a cause of action. Therefore certain examples have been provided below17,
- In a suit for possession against a tenant on the ground of non-payment of rent, the default of rent is the cause of action in such a suit. When the suit is filed, the period for which the tenant has been in default must be
- In a suit on a promissory note on demand, it must be stated that no payment was made by the defendant/promisee, despite the demand being
- In a suit for damages for breach of contract, it is necessary to establish that a contract existed between the parties and the defendant committed breach of the same.
- In the event of continuing contracts, cause of action would include all breaches to the date of the
The above however only exhibits the more simplistic problems encountered with respect to cause of action. The conundrum induced by cause of action begins to grow in complexity with the increase in the number of causes of actions and parties involved. The same shall be discussed below.
3. Cause of Action and Other Procedural Doctrines
3.1. Joinder of Parties and Cause of Action.
Order 1 Rule 1 of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 provides for joinder of plaintiffs. All persons may be joined in one suit as plaintiffs if the following conditions are satisfied,
- If the right to relief alleged to exist in each plaintiff arises out of the same
- The case is of such character is such that if the persons brought separate suits, any common question of fact or law would
Illustration for Joinder of Plaintiff:
An altercation takes place between ABC on one side and DEF and XYZ on the other. ABC assaults DEF and XYZ simultaneously. DEF and XYZ may join as plaintiffs in one suit for damages against ABC for the tortious act as the required conditions are satisfied.
Similarly, the Code (CPC, 1908) also provides for joinder of defendants, if the right to relief alleged against them arises out of the same act or transaction, and if separate suits were brought against such persons, any common question of law or fact would arise.
Illustration for Joinder of Defendants:
In a collision between a bus and a car, where the bus belongs to A and the car to Z, there is a passer-by, M who is injured. M may join A or Z as defendants in one suit for damages for injuries caused to him by negligence on the part of both of them or any one of them as the event involves common questions of fact arising out of a common transaction.
The rule of joinder was brought forth with the purpose of avoiding multiplicity of suits and needless expenses. With the above established, it is necessary to understand the correlation between joinder and cause of action.
X enters into a single agreement with Y and Z. X states that he will supply 10,000 shoes to Y and 10,000 shoes to Z. X fails to fulfil the terms of the agreement. Both Y and Z wish to file suits.
The above illustration raises questions such as whether one suit ought to be filed or two suits ought to be filed?
X enters into separate agreements, with the same terms and all the three parties, X,Y and Z sitting together. X fails to perform his part of the agreement. Y and Z wish to file suits.
Would two suits be possible in the latter instant or only one?
In the case of illustration α, two suits could be filed. In the latter illustration however, separate suits must be filed by the respective plaintiffs. This is due to the fact that separate transactions have occurred in the latter illustration, whereas in the former, the breach was conducted post the occurrence of the same act or transaction, and if both Y and Z had filed suits, common questions of law or fact would arise.
As joinder relates to common questions of facts and same acts or transactions, the importance of cause of action is brought forth. Cause of action, as described by the Indian Courts relates to a set of facts. Therefore the importance of highlighting the cause of action grows.
If there exists a common cause of action, there exists a common transaction or common question of law, thereby it determines whether the suit or suits put before the court can be clubbed together, or rather joined. Cause of action in this instance determines the grounds to perform a joinder. It essentially provides the grounds for the same and determines whether a joinder can be performed or if a misjoinder has been performed. However it must be noted, that the cause of action is not the sole basis on which misjoinder or joinder are determined.
3.2. Cause of Action, Res Judicata and Splitting up of Claims
- Res Judictata:
In State of U.P v. Nawab Hussain, it was stated, that “Res Judicata is the broader rule of evidence which prohibits the reassertion of a cause of action. This is based on two theories, i) the finality and conclusiveness of judicial decisions for the final termination of disputes in the general interest of the community as a matter of public policy, and ii) the interest of the individual that he should be protected from multiplication of litigation.”18
“The principle of Res Judicata serves not only a public but also a private purpose by obstructing matters which have once been adjudicated upon. It is thus not permissible to obtain a second judgement for the same civil relief for the same cause of action. It is the cause of action which gives rise to an action and that is why it is necessary for the courts to recognise that a cause of action which results in a judgement must lost its identity and vitality and merge in the judgement when pronounced. It cannot therefore survive the judgement or give rise to another cause of action on the same facts. But it may be that the same set of facts may give rise to two or more causes of action. If in such a case a person is allowed to choose and sue upon one cause of action at one time and to reserve the other for subsequent litigation that would aggravate the burden of litigation. Courts have therefore treated such a course of action as an abuse of its process. Constructive Res Judicata is therefore another and an equally necessary efficacious aspect of the same principle, for it helps in raising the bar of res judicata by suitable construing the general principle of subduing a cantankerous litigant. It is termed as constructive res judicata and is it an amplification or an aspect of the general principle”19
The principle of Res Judicata clearly lies down that cause of action only possesses its identity for the course of one judgement. Multiple proceedings cannot take place, arising out of the same cause of action, as they are barred by the principle of Res Judicata. Furthermore, if there are more causes of actions arising out of the same facts, the principle of constructive res judicata is applied and bars subsequent litigation.
With respect to cause of action, the principle of Res Judicata has clearly laid down that cause of action is only sufficient to institute one proceeding and once a judgement has been pronounced upon those facts which constitute the cause of action, those facts cease to possess their identity as a cause of action and subsequent litigation cannot be initiated upon the same.
- Splitting up of claims
The rule against splitting in the United States is that a single cause shall not be “split” or divided among several suits. This is designed to prevent litigation of the same question in different suits. It therefore compels a certain extension of the issues in a single suit on pain of forfeiting the opportunity to litigate them elsewhere.20
Splitting up of claims is an extremely important aspect of the Code, and is considered one of the five pillars of the same. The rules with respect to splitting up of claims are as follows21,
- “ The suit is to include the whole claim which the plaintiff is entitled to make in respect of any cause of action. However a plaintiff may relinquish any portion of his claim in order to bring the suit within the jurisdiction of any
- Where a plaintiff omits to sue in respect of or intentionally relinquishes any portion of his claim, he shall not sue in respect of the portion so omitted or
- A person entitled to more than one relief, may sue for any or all such reliefs but if he omits, except with the leave of the court to sue for all such reliefs, he shall not afterwards sue for any relief ””
The above can be summarised as, “all the reliefs arising from one cause of action must be claimed in that suit. That relief cannot be availed at any later point after the adjudication of that suit as it will be barred by res jusdicata.”
Res Judicata differs from Order 2 Rule 2 of the Code, as22
- ““Res judicata refers to a plaintiff’s duty to bring forward all the grounds of attack in support of his claim. Order 2 Rule 2 on the other hand only requires a plaintiff to claim all reliefs arising from the same cause of
- Res judicata applies on both the parties and precludes a suit as well as a defence. Whereas Order 2 Rule 2, applies only to a plaintiff and bars a ””
In conclusion, it can be stated that the term refers to the set of facts that ultimately provide the grounds upon which the plaintiff may institute a suit in order to enforce the rights he possesses. Cause of action is not a right in itself but merely a set of facts which by way of their relevance provide the right to approach the court to enforce the rights which have been infringed by the actions of another.
The facts that constitute a cause of action may be used against one defendant or multiple defendants if the facts are such that they relate to the same transaction or act or if they are in the nature that if filed as separate suits, common questions relating to law or fact may arise.
Furthermore, cause of action can only be used in a single suit. It cannot be used for more than one legal proceeding if adjudicated upon. When the judgement is passed in a legal suit arising from a certain set of facts which constitute the cause of action, those set of facts lose their identity as a cause of action. They no longer possess the value they require to institute a suit. Upon the passing of the judgement, those facts are barred by res judicata and cannot give way to another suit. If multiple reliefs were available and arising from those set of facts and not all of them were availed in the first proceeding, they cannot be availed in any subsequent proceeding either.
Cause of action is a wide term and cannot be limited. To limit a term that has enjoyed such a wide ambit for such a long time would lead to disastrous consequences. Cause of action only relates to those facts which are relevant and show the infringement of a certain legal right.
The term has not been defined by any legislative body thus far. The definitions adopted for the term have been provided by the judiciary, although the definitions provided are more apt to be termed as descriptions.
No definition has been provided as the nature of cause of action is such that it varies from case to case. Therefore the recommendation regarding the meaning of cause of action is that no definition is attached to the same for that very purpose.
No two cases are identical as the facts behind the cases are never identical either. As cause of action directly relates to the facts behind the same, they can never be identical either, unless in rare circumstances. Therefore to define the same by way of statute would limit the ambit and scope of the term to a certain degree which would not be beneficial. The wider-narrower theory ought to be adopted in this instance over the pigeon-hole theory.
As cause of action relates to facts, it is the judiciary who must scrutinise the same and check whether these facts constitute a good cause of action upon which a suit can be maintained. Therefore it is best if the judiciary is allowed freedom to interpret the term in the manner they seem fit as the process of scrutiny is upon them to begin with.
As the judiciary is better equipped and better placed to handle the baggage the term entails, imposing a definition by way of statutes would only amount to restricting the judiciary and harming the process of justice and therefore such a practice must be avoided.
1 Students at Symbiosis Law School, Hyderabad.
2 C.K.Takwani, Civil Procedure with Limitation Act 1963 153( 8th ed. Abhinandan Malik, 2017)
4 supra note 1 at 5.
5 State of Rajasthan v. Swaika Properties, (1985) 3 SCC 217.
6 Sadanandan v. Madhavan, (1998) 6 SCC 514.
7 Om Prakash Srivasatava v. Union of India, (2006) 6 SCC 207; (Church of Christ Charitable Trust and Educational Society v. Ponniamman Educational Trust, 2012), (2012) 8 SCC 706.
8 Alchemist Ltd. v. State Bank of Sikkim, (2007) 11 SCC 335
10 Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. State of T.N. (2016) 2 SCC 725.
11 supra note 1 at 5.
12 S.K.Khanna (Dr) v. State of Haryana, (1994) 1 SCC 601.
13 Church of Christ Charitable Trust & Educational Charitable Society v. Ponniamman Educational Trust, (2012) 8 SC 706.
14 State of Bihar v. Barakar Engg. & Foundry Works Ltd.,(1972) 4 SCC 468.
16supra note 7 at 7.
17 supra note 1 at 5.
18 State of U.P v. Nawab Hussain, (1977) 2 SCC 806.
19 supra note 17 at 11.
20 Charles E. Clark, Joinder and Splitting of Causes of Action, Mich. L.Rev.
21 supra note 1 at 5.
22 supra note 1 at 5.