Judges ‘not omniscient’

Posted: 26th July 2012

The Court of Appeal has ruled that judges are ‘not omniscient’ in drawing back from a religious precipice and refusing to decide whether or not a Sikh spiritual leader is a ‘holy saint’.

Followers of Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj say that he is the ‘third holy saint’, in succession to his forebears, and rightly exercises spiritual and temporal power over Sikh temples, or gurdwaras, in Birmingham and High Wycombe.

However, that is disputed by other worshippers and the opposing parties have engaged in a four-year legal dispute over Sant Baba's status and whether he has the power to appoint and replace officers and trustees of the gurdwaras.

Three judges at the Court of Appeal have now ruled that the courts have ‘no business’ considering the doctrinal issues of faith that lie at the heart of the debate over whether Sant Baba is indeed a holy saint.

Calling an immediate halt to the case's progress through the legal system, Lord Justice Mummery said that the court was being asked ‘to pronounce on matters of religious doctrine and practice’ which fell outside its secular province.

Supporters of Sant Baba argue that he was duly appointed and ceremonially installed as "Mukhia" - or head - of Nirmal Kutia Johal, a Sikh institution in the Punjab which is the mother organisation of the two gurdwaras. They argue that the issue of whether Sant Baba has power to appoint and replace officials at the gurdwaras, which are both registered charities, was capable of being resolved as matter of secular law.

Lord Justice Mummery, sitting with Lords Justice Hooper and Pitchford, said that, if the court engaged in considering the case, it would risk ‘becoming embroiled in religious controversies’. Pointing to the ‘unfortunate and rather pointless religious battles’ that plagued the English legal system during the ‘more religious’ 19th Century, the judge said that the court would ‘risk diminishing respect for its own authority’ if it accepted jurisdiction to rule on the dispute.

Exercising what he termed ‘judicial self-restraint’, the judge said it was vital that the courts ‘do not overreach themselves’ and that they abstain from delving into spiritual issues which it is not appropriate for them to resolve. ‘Judges are not capable of understanding and deciding everything and it is not their function to do so. Judges are not omniscient’, he said. It was not possible for the court to decide ‘with any degree of confidence or credibility’ whether Sant Baba is, or is not, a holy saint.

Taking the rare step of declaring the dispute ‘non-justiciable’, he added: ‘In my view, the question of succession is essentially a matter of professed subjective belief and faith on which secular municipal courts cannot possibly reach a decision, either as a matter of law or fact.’

Urging a resolution of the dispute through mediation, the judge concluded: ‘The present litigation has no realistic future in the courts and must be brought to a halt now.’