1. The respondent was the owner of the residential building No. 57, South Vadampokki Street, Madurai. The petitioner, the Madurai Municipality, was the tenant of that house till 1942, and the monthly rent was Rs. 60. Thereafter it was rented by the owner to one Krishnier, and the fair rent for that building was fixed at Rs. 47 a month by the Rent Controller. In 1949, the plaintiff himself obtained possession of the house for the occupation of his son. Subsequently on 16th July, 1951, the house was rented to Dr. Kaliappan. The respondent claimed that under the registered rent deed, the rent payable by the tenant Dr. Kaliappan was Rs. 75 a month. The municipal assessment of this building was Rs. 53-4-3 per half year, the annual rental value being taken as Rs. 526. For each of the half years in 1951-1952 the Commissioner of the Municipality proposed to enhance the assessment to Rs. 226-12-6 per half year, the annual value of the building being Rs. 2,240. That provisional assessment was confirmed by the Commissioner after notice to the respondent. The respondent appealed to the Municipal Council and reiterated his contention, that the monthly rental value was only Rs. 75 and that the assessment should be on that basis. The Municipal Council fixed a rental value of Rs. 120 per month and reduced the half-yearly assessment to Rs. 136. These amounts were apparently paid under protest.
2. The respondent instituted the suit, out of which this application arises, claiming a refund of Rs. 132-12-0, which represented the difference between the assessment as finally determined by the Municipal Council and assessment which according to the plaintiff, should have been fixed on the footing that the real rental value of the building was Rs. 75 a month'. The plea of the defendant Municipality was that the suit was barred under the provisions of Section 354 of the Madras District Municipalities Act.
3. The learned District Munsif upheld that defence and dismissed the suit. On appeal, the learned Subordinate Judge set aside the decree of the trial Court and decreed the plaintiff's claim. It is the correctness of the appellate judgment that the defendant-petitioner challenged by his application under Section 115, Civil Procedure Code.
4. The learned Subordinate Judge correctly posed the question for determination in appeal:
Whether the provisions of the District Municipalities Act have not in substance and effect been complied with.
The finding of the learned District Munsif was the enhancement of the tax on the suit property was not ultra vires and illegal which in effect meant that the provisions of the Act had been complied with, and therefore the ban imposed by Section 354(2) applied. That finding was not accepted by the learned Subordinate Judge. The learned Subordinate Judge recorded:
I have therefore no doubt as to the assessment having been made capriciously without taking into consideration the materials placed by the plaintiff before the defendant and that therefore it is a case of non-compliance with the provisions of Section 82(2) of the Act in substance and effect and that Section 354(1) cannot therefore operate as a bar to the plaintiff coming forward with the suit.
5. The learned Counsel for the respondent (Plaintiff) pointed out that it is the revisional jurisdiction under Section 115, Civil Procedure Code, that has now been invoked. The learned Counsel urged that the question, whether there has been substantial compliance with the Act, is one of fact, which has to be determined with reference to the particular circumstances of the case. That was what was laid down in Municipal Council, Kakinada v. Standard Life Insurance Co. : (1900)10MLJ401 and reiterated in Municipal Council, Kumbakonam v. Ralli Brothers (1930) 61 M.L.J. 748 at 753. The learned Counsel therefore urged that even though the appellate Court differed on that question of fact from the trial Court, the finding of the appellate Court should not be disturbed in exercise of the revisional jurisdiction of this Court.
6. The contention of the learned Counsel for the petitioner that though the question posed for determination by the learned Subordinate Judge was correct, the approach the learned Judge adopted in answering that question vitiated the finding, is in my opinion, well founded. It was certainly not the province of the Civil Court to decide on the material placed either before the statutory authorities or before the Court what was the correct rental value on the basis of which the assessment could be determined. The civil Court is neither an appellate nor revisional authority for that purpose. The learned Counsel for the petitioner would appear to be well founded, when he urged that the learned appellate Judge's view, that the rent deed executed by Dr. Kaliappan, showing that the rent agreed upon was only Rs. 75 a month, should have determined the issue, and that the correct rental value should be taken only as Rs. 75 a month, really furnished the basis for his finding, that the revision of the assessment made by the statutory authorities was capricious, ' without taking into consideration the materials placed by the plaintiff before the defendant'.
7. In Lakshmanan Chetti v. Municipal Council, Trichinopoly A.I.R. 1938 Mad. 208 Reilly, J., in dealing with the contention that ' no assessment which is incorrect does in substance and effect comply with the provisions of the Act--that an incorrect assessment has no legal basis ', observed:
If that argument is accepted, then Section 354(a) of the Act is no protection against a suit of any person who is not in complete agreement with the Municipal Council about the justice of his assessment. I have no doubt that the Sub-section was intended to provide real protection to the Chairman and the Council and that its effect is that, when they have proceeded in the matter of assessment in accordance with the Act, no suit will lie against them even if their actual decision is wrong. A disappointed assessee certainly cannot escape the bar against his suit by describing the action of the Council or the Chairman as arbitrary or by using any other strong language.
8. The learned Subordinate Judge held, in effect, that there was no proper enquiry before the assessment was revised, and that vitiated the exercise of the statutory power of the Commissioner to revise the assessment and also the appellate power exercised by the Municipal Council. That there was an enquiry by the Commissioner after the issue of the notice to the plaintiff informing him of the proposal to revise the assessment was common ground. Further D.W. 1, the Revenue Officer, deposed:
I was present when the Commissioner conducted the revision enquiry. P.W. 1'S (Plaintiff's) son and his kariasthan were present for that enquiry. They had brought documents and receipts. But they showed only Rs. 75 as rent per mensem.
D.W. 1 deposed further that the Commissioner directed him as the Revenue Officer to conduct further enquiries, and that on that enquiry he came to know that the monthly rental collected by the plaintiff from Dr. Kaliappan was really Rs. 200. D.W. 1 also gave evidence of the scope of his other enquiries with reference to other houses in that locality. It is true that D.W. 1 did not make a written report to the Commissioner of his enquiry. Exhibit B-7 showed that the Commissioner had a discussion with the Revenue Officer before the Commissioner accepted the Revenue Officer's report to him, that the actual rental was Rs. 200. The learned District Munsif commented on the failure of the plaintiff to place on record the evidence of Dr. Kaliappan. The learned Subordinate Judge commented on the failure of the Revenue Officer. D.W. 1, to examine Dr. Kaliappan during, his enquiry. The learned Subordinate Judge apparently overlooked the fact, that the correctness of the decision of the Commissioner was not real by the issue for determination before this Court, even assuming that it was open to the learned Subordinate Judge to examine meticulously the scope of the enquiry conducted by the Revenue Officer. It is also a little difficult to accept the final conclusion, that there was no proper enquiry. The statutory authority to conduct the enquiry was the Commissioner. The plaintiff had an opportunity to make his representations to the Commissioner. It was open to the Commissioner to make further enquires himself or to depute any of his subordinates to conduct the enquiry. The Revenue Officer conducted the enquiry and reported orally the results of his enquiry to the Commissioner. I am unable to understand how this is not substantial compliance with the requirement, that there must be an enquiry before the quantum of assessment is determined. To determine the quantum of assessment in this case, the quantum of the rent actually received had to be determined. The question at issue was not what was the possible or probable rental value of the building. The question at issue narrowed itself down to this : Was it Rs. 75 a month that the plaintiff actually got from his tenant Dr. Kaliappan which was the plaintiff's claim, or was it Rs. 200 a month that the plaintiff was in actual receipt of as rent, which was the case put forward by the Revenue Officer . The quantum of evidence necessary to support the final conclusion, that Rs. 200 was the actual rent that the plaintiff received, was a matter for the statutory authority to decide. As I said, the evidence disclosed that there was an enquiry before the Commissioner discharged his statutory duty to determine the quantum of assessment. That the Revenue Officer did not make a written report in no way affected the real question, did the Commissioner as the statutory authority substantially comply with the requirements of law.
9. The learned Subordinate Judge referred to Section 82(2) of the District Municipalities Act. I fail to see how that really affected the question at issue. As I said, the question even before the Commissioner had narrowed itself to: Was it Rs. 75 or Rs. 200 that the plaintiff actually received as rent for the building ?
10. Even if the Commissioner had arrived at an erroneous decision, the proper forum for redress was the Municipal Council to whom an appeal lay. The plaintiff availed himself of that right and appealed to the Municipal Council. The Municipal Council came to the conclusion that Rs. 120 a month was the real rental value of the building. The learned Subordinate Judge observed:
It must be either a case of the plaintiff getting a rent of Rs. 75 as contended by him, or a case of Rs. 200 being received by him as rent as contended by the defendant. I do not see how, in between the two, the rental has been fixed at Rs. 344, under Exhibit B-11.
11. It was certainly within the jurisdiction of the statutory authority, the Municipal Council, as the appellate authority, to fix on the material placed before it the quantum of the actual rent received. To limit the jurisdiction of the Municipal Council to a choice between Rs. 75 and Rs. 200 is certainly to misconstrue the scope of the jurisdiction vested in the Municipal Council as the appellate authority. Again, even if the conclusion of the Municipal Council that Rs. 120 was the actual rent realised by the plaintiff was erroneous, that was not open to correction by a civil Court. As I said it was not the duty of the Civil Court to determine what was the assessment that could be lawfully levied or to decide as incidental thereto what was the actual rent the plaintiff received.
12. There is one other feature I have to notice. Even if the plaintiff's grievance was that there had been no proper enquiry either by the Revenue Officer or by the Commissioner that could have been redressed when he appealed to the Municipal Council. It is a little difficult to say on the material on record that the plaintiff had not a full opportunity of making his representations to the appellate authority, the Municipal Council. Whether in disposing of the appeal the Municipal Council substantially complied with the requirements of law was the real question, and that question could only be answered in the affirmative. The learned Counsel for the respondent urged that the erroneous finding of the Commissioner, without a proper enquiry by the Revenue Officer, vitiated the exercise of the appellate power of the Municipal Council. I am unable to accept that contention. It is only presenting again the same unacceptable argument, that an erroneous decision by the Municipality would amount to an arbitrary exercise of the power vested in the Municipality.
13. The learned Counsel for the respondent referred to Narayan Chandra Dutt v. Chairman, Municipal Commissioners, Panipat : AIR1930Cal38 . That can have no application to the facts in issue in the present case. As I said, the real question was, what was the rent actually received by the plaintiff. The plaintiff claimed it was Rs. 75 ; the Commissioner was of the view it was Rs. 200 ; the Municipality took the view it was Rs. 120.
14. In determining the respective spheres of the civil Court and the statutory authority it is well to bear in mind the principle laid down by Varadachariar, J., in Secretary of State v. Meyappa I.L.R. (1937) Mad. 211 : A.I.R. 1937.
Statutory tribunal or authority which has to arrive at a decision as to the existence or non-existence of certain facts before proceeding to take further action under the statute, is acting within the jurisdiction in making that decision even though wrongly and is immune from civil proceedings to quash that decision except such as are prescribed by the statute.
It was the statutory authority that had to decide first what was the actual rental received, and on the basis of that fix the assessment payable by the owner of the house.
15. Since the finding of the learned Subordinate Judge, that there had been no substantial compliance with the requirements of the Act, was vitiated by his wrong approach to the problem, I am constrained to differ from him and accept the conclusion of the learned trial Judge, that there had been a real compliance.
16. The decree of the learned Subordinate Judge is set aside and the petitioner will be entitled to his costs both in this Court and in the lower appellate Court.