Crowded corridors of justice

Topics Supreme Court | criminal cases | PIL

The Federal Court, predecessor of the Supreme Court of India, sat only when a case came up before it, which was not quite often. When the Supreme Court was established in 1950, the list of cases was so small that it was published like in the Engagements column in some Delhi newspapers. Times have changed. Now the case list runs into hundreds of printed pages, and heard by 34 judges sitting in 16 court rooms. The number of lawyers has increased 50 times. This has led to overcrowded corridors and court rooms, leaving the Chief Justice and the Attorney General wondering last week whether the present court complex built in 1958 could take in the pressure on space. They even discussed building a new hub. The court is also reportedly consulting a firm specialising in crowd circulation in public buildings.

There are several reasons for the court to burst at the seams. It has too many jurisdictions. An analysis of the 1,293 judgments delivered in 2019 gives a clue. Though it is considered to be a constitutional court, it delivered only 43 decisions (3.3 per cent) directly related to the statute. In contrast, 188 judgments related to services. They raised mundane issues like selection, transfer, promotion, parity, pension and retirement benefits. There are administrative tribunals and appellate bodies to deal with them, but the doors of the Supreme Court are ajar to try one last fling. Review petitions and curative petitions are open for the utterly desperate. Appeals from the armed forces tribunals dealing with the same issues also reach the Supreme Court. It decided 35 of them, which point to an unhealthy state of affairs in defence forces.  

Though there is a comprehensive Arbitration and Conciliation Act, amended a few times, 53 judgments were delivered on this issue. The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act has taken much pressure from the apex court but matters relating to company law, banking and infrastructure had to be decided in 31 cases. There were 38 judgments settling questions of labour law. Direct and indirect taxes numbered 36. Disputes over land acquisitions, ceiling laws and land reform laws were settled in 63 cases. The court was burdened with 27 landlord-tenant disputes. After the establishment of green tribunals, the number of environment cases has shrunk to 20.

The maximum cases decided were in criminal matters, 324 of them. Most of the appeals dealt with plain murders, domestic violence, sexual assault, juveniles, SC/STs, corruption, preventive detention and bail. These appeals raising questions of facts and evidence should not ordinarily reach the Supreme Court, but they do because of the poor quality of justice rendered at the subordinate level and the material instincts of the legal profession.

There is a section of commentators who think that public interest litigation (PIL) is clogging the court and individual petitioners have to wait longer because of the indiscriminate filing of such cases. But judgments in PIL were mere 18, disproving the impression. Moreover, PIL verdicts benefit large sections of society as governance is seen to be weak.

The writ courts are bound to get even more choked in future, not merely because of the poor infrastructure provided to them in successive Budgets, but also because of the rise in literacy and legal awareness. The present political atmosphere has reportedly pushed up the sale of the copies of the Constitution in bookshops. Reading the Preamble and Fundamental Rights has become part of protests. There are libraries coming up at “occupy sites” in several cities. Fundamental rights have entered school text books. Commercial films are increasingly taking up legal themes and giving titles like “Section 375”. When people start reading the Constitution, though it is the longest in any democracy with 395 articles, 12 Schedules and more than 120 amendments, they will have plenty to talk about and argue in the courts.

Some congestion can be avoided if the court allows live streaming of its proceedings. The judges could also regulate the flow of special leave petitions which are admitted easily. Litigation over partition suits, college admissions and limitation should end at the high court level; interminable quest for justice must not hinder the march of substantial law. That will leave some time for the court to tackle about 60 constitutional cases pending before it for decades.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel