In Motilal Padampat Sugar Mills Co. Ltd. v. State of U.P., (1979) 2 SCC 409, a two-Judge Bench of Court discussed the doctrine of promissory estoppel in great detail and laid down the various propositions including the following: “The true principle of promissory estoppel, therefore, seems to be that where one party has by his words or conduct made to the other a clear and unequivocal promise which is intended to create legal relations or affect a legal relationship to arise in the future, knowing or intending that it would be acted upon by the other party to whom the promise is made and it is in fact so acted upon by the other party, the promise would be binding on the party making it and he would not be entitled to go back upon it, if it would be inequitable to allow him to do so having regard to the dealings which have taken place between the parties, and this would be so irrespective of whether there is any pre-existing relationship between the parties or not.” ……….“The law may, therefore, now be taken to be settled as a result of this decision, that where the Government makes a promise knowing or intending that it would be acted on by the promisee and, in fact, the promisee, acting in reliance on it, alters his position, the Government would be held bound by the promise and the promise would be enforceable against the Government at the instance of the promisee, notwithstanding that there is no consideration for the promise and the promise is not recorded in the form of a formal contract as required by Article 299 of the Constitution.”
A contrary view was expressed by another two-Judge Bench in Jit Ram v. State of Haryana (1981) 1 SCC 11, but the law laid down in Motilal Padampat Sugar Mills Co. Ltd. v. State of U.P. (supra) was reiterated in Union of India v. Godfrey Philips India Ltd. (1985) 4 SCC 369, which was decided by a three-Judge Bench. Bhagwati, C.J. with whom the other two members of the Bench agreed on the exposition of law relating to the doctrine of promissory estoppel, observed: "Of course we must make it clear, and that is also laid down in Motilal Sugar Mills case that there can be no promissory estoppel against the Legislature in the exercise of its legislative functions nor can the Government or public authority be debarred by promissory estoppel from enforcing a statutory prohibition. It is equally true that promissory estoppel cannot be used to compel the Government or a public authority to carry out a representation or promise which is contrary to law or which was outside the authority or, power of the officer of the Government or of the public authority to make. We may also point out that the doctrine of promissory estoppel being an equitable doctrine, it must yield when the equity so requires; if it can be shown by the Government or public authority that having regard to the facts as they have transpired, it would be inequitable to hold the Government or public authority to the promise or representation made by it, the Court would not raise an equity in favour of the person to whom the promise or representation is made and enforce the promise or representation against the Government or public authority. The doctrine of promissory estoppel would be displaced in such a case, because on the facts, equity would not require that the Government or public authority should be held bound by the promise or representation made by it. This aspect has been dealt with fully in Motilal Sugar Mills case and we find ourselves wholly in agreement with what has been said in that decision on this point.”
In Food Corporation of India v. Kamdhenu Cattle Feed Industries ((1993) 1 Supreme Court Cases 71.), Court considered whether by submitting tender in response to notice issued by the Food Corporation of India for sale of stocks of damaged food grains, the respondent had acquired a right to have its tender accepted and the appellant was not entitled to reject the same. While approving the view expressed by the High Court that rejection of the highest tender of the writ petitioner-respondent was legally correct, this Court observed: "The mere reasonable or legitimate expectation of a citizen, in such a situation, may not by itself be a distinct enforceable right, but failure to consider and give due weight to it may render the decision arbitrary, and this is how the requirement of due consideration of a legitimate expectation forms part of the principle of non-arbitrariness, a necessary concomitant of the rule of law. Every legitimate expectation is a relevant factor requiring due consideration in a fair decision-making process. Whether the expectation of the claimant is reasonable or legitimate in the context is a question of fact in each case. Whenever the question arises, it is to be determined not according to the claimant's perception but in larger public interest wherein other more important considerations may outweigh what would otherwise have been the legitimate expectation of the claimant. A bona fide decision of the public authority reached in this manner would satisfy the requirement of non-arbitrariness and withstand judicial scrutiny. The doctrine of legitimate expectation gets assimilated in the rule of law and operates in our legal system in this manner and to this extent."
In Union of India v. Hindustan Development Corporation (1994 AIR 988, 1993 SCR (3) 128), the doctrine of legitimate expectation was explained in the following words: “. ... For legal purposes, the expectation cannot be the same as anticipation. It is different from a wish, a desire or a hope nor can it amount to a claim or demand on the ground of a right. However earnest and sincere a wish, a desire or a hope may be and however confidently one may look to them to be fulfilled, they by themselves cannot amount to an assertable expectation and a mere disappointment does not attract legal consequences. A pious hope even leading to a moral obligation cannot amount to a legitimate expectation. The legitimacy of an expectation can be inferred only if it is founded on the sanction of law or custom or an established procedure followed in regular and natural sequence. Again it is distinguishable from a genuine expectation. Such expectation should be justifiably legitimate and protectable. Every such legitimate expectation does not by itself fructify into a right and therefore it does not amount to a right in the conventional sense.”
The same principle has been stated and reiterated in Punjab Communications Ltd. v. Union of India (1999) 4 SCC 727, Dr. Chanchal Goyal v. State of Rajasthan (2003) 3 SCC 485, J.P. Bansal v. State of Rajasthan (2003) 5 SCC 134, State of Karnataka v. Uma Devi (2006) 4 SCC 1,Kuldeep Singh v. Government of NCT of Delhi (2006) 5 SCC 702, Ram Pravesh Singh v. State of Bihar (2006) 8 SCC 381 and Sethi Auto Service Station v. DDA (2009) 1 SCC 180. In the last mentioned judgment, the Court referred to various precedents and observed: “..................the golden thread running through all these decisions is that a case for applicability of the doctrine of legitimate expectation, now accepted in the subjective sense as part of our legal jurisprudence, arises when an administrative body by reason of a representation or by past practice or conduct aroused an expectation which it would be within its powers to fulfil unless some overriding public interest comes in the way. However, a person who bases his claim on the doctrine of legitimate expectation, in the first instance, has to satisfy that he has relied on the said representation and the denial of that expectation has worked to his detriment. The Court could interfere only if the decision taken by the authority was found to be arbitrary, unreasonable or in gross abuse of power or in violation of principles of natural justice and not taken in public interest. But a claim based on mere legitimate expectation without anything more cannot ipso facto give a right to invoke these principles.”
In Hira Tikoo v. Union Territory, Chandigarh (2004) 6 SCC 765, Court considered whether the High Court was justified in refusing to invoke the doctrine of promissory estoppel for issuing a mandamus to the respondent-Chandigarh Administration to allot industrial plots to the petitioners, who had applied in response to an advertisement issued in 1981. The Court noted that some of the successful applicants were given possession of the plots but majority of them were not given allotment letters on the ground that the land formed part of the reserved forest and partially approved the decision of the High Court by making the following observations: “Surely, the doctrine of estoppel cannot be applied against public authorities when their mistaken advice or representation is found to be in breach of a statute and therefore, against general public interest. The question, however, is whether the parties or individuals, who had suffered because of the mistake and negligence on the part of the statutory public authorities, would have any remedy of redressal for the loss they have suffered. The "rules of fairness" by which every public authority is bound, require them to compensate loss occasioned to private parties or citizens who were misled in acting on such mistaken or negligent advice of the public authority. There are no allegations and material in these cases to come to a conclusion that the action of the authorities was mala fide. It may be held to be careless or negligent. In some of the English cases, the view taken is that the public authorities cannot be absolved of their liability to provide adequate monetary compensation to the parties who are adversely affected by their erroneous decisions and actions. But in these cases, any directions to the public authorities to pay monetary compensation or damages would also indirectly harm general public interest. The public authorities are entrusted with public fund raised from public money. The funds are in trust with them for utilisation in public interest and strictly for the purposes of the statute under which they are created with specific statutory duties imposed on them. In such a situation when a party or citizen has relied, to his detriment, on an erroneous representation made by public authorities and suffered loss and where the doctrine of "estoppel" will not be invoked to his aid, directing administrative redressal would be a more appropriate remedy than payment of monetary compensation for the loss caused by non-delivery of the possession of the plots and consequent delay caused in setting up industries by the allottees.”