Reforms possible from within

Topics Supreme Court

After nine months of gust and then the relative tranquility in the Supreme Court, the new Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi has promised “radical reforms” to tackle the evils that have bedeviled the judicial system. How he will go about this mighty task in his 13-month term will be revealed only in the coming weeks. 

What we know is that there is a backlog of more than 30 million cases, 4.3 million cases in 24 high courts and 54,000 plus cases in the Supreme Court itself. The subordinate courts have 5,223 vacancies while the total sanctioned strength is 22,444. High courts have 427 vacancies or almost 40 per cent of the sanctioned strength of 1,079. The judge-population ratio is 19 per one million people, when the Law Commission estimated in 1,987 that a healthy ratio would be 50 per million.

Though one should leave intricate issues of case management and advisability of introducing AI to experts, some obvious measures can be suggested by those who have walked the court corridors for some time. These reforms can be started by the judges themselves through practice directions.

First, the Supreme Court was envisioned as a constitutional court dealing with matters of interpretation of the statute. But over the decades, it has become an appellate court dealing with such ordinary issues like promotions in service, tenancy and land disputes. They come through Article 136 of the Constitution that allows appeals in the garb of special leave petitions. Their number has outpaced that of writ petitions. Therefore, there must be strict control over the exercise of this jurisdiction.

Second, the court should limit the length of arguments that often extends over months. In the Aadhaar case, counsels were allowed 38 days, spanning over three months. Then it was perhaps realised by ex-CJI Dipak Misra, as Master of Rolls, that he had only a few weeks to retire and all profound issues with historic value — like reservation, adultery, gay rights, temple entry — were pooled in his court. He rushed through all of them, each getting only three or four days. This shows that the CJ is the master of the clock and calendar, not just roster of judges. 

The earlier excuse for giving a long rope for arguing counsel was that Indian courts follow the English practice unlike the US Supreme Court, where each side is allowed only half an hour. It was stated that US judges are assisted by law clerks who do the bulk of the research. This excuse no longer holds good. There is a research wing in the court itself. Moreover, the judges now get help from interns. Therefore, the arguing time can be reduced. If the lawyers prolong arguments to impress their clients or to squeeze more fees, they should be levied penal charges proportionate to the extra time taken.

The evil of adjournments is well-known, and is now staple of film scenes. It is within the power of the judges to regulate it, but the lawyers’ ingenuity and judges’ lethargy have made it an egregious side of court proceedings. 

There is also a general feeling that public interest petitions have become an unruly horse. In one day some time ago, an agriculturist wanted children in primary classes to learn the entire text of the Constitution; a lawyer wanted the Supreme Court to abolish paper currency; and a citizen strongly felt that it would be patriotic to scrap all the pre-Independence laws. All of them were mercifully dismissed at the threshold. But their cousins still remain in the dockets. 

Though the court is open to all, the disorderly crowd standing in the courtrooms does not add to its dignity. Often aged and respected seniors struggle to reach the well of the court, ploughing through stragglers. Some district courts allow only those who have cases listed before them to enter the hall.

One of the major challenges before the new CJ is the drafting of the “memorandum of procedure” to appoint judges. The proposal was stuck for over two years, leading to a running shadow battle between the court and the government. Now that the term of the present government is ending, it is not likely to reject the recommendations of the collegium. The CJ has got some breathing time on that front. While the nation waits for a new government, reforms in the judiciary can start from within.

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