Supreme Court door ast

Next week, the Supreme Court will close down for its conventional two-month summer vacation. A bench will remain to hear urgent matters and another to clear old matters, if the lawyers in them choose to remain in Delhi. It is the silly season for law. 

The time has come to review the tradition of long summer recess that came down from the colonial days when Delhi was deserted by the rulers who went up the hills or sailed to their native lands. There was no air-conditioning, no internet, no e-library, no e-filing facilities and video conferences. All that has changed now. There is little reason to justify long vacations because of summer heat and dust of the north. Now the library is on the net and even the Supreme Court judges’ library can be accessed from any part of the globe. There is no need to trundle books to other cities and no cost is involved either to the court or to the litigants. Counsels often argue with laptop in front. Some are e-courts without paper. Therefore, as an experimental measure, the sittings in the summer could be moved to a cooler place like Bengaluru.

Last week, another strong reason came to the surface with allegations of ‘fixers’ and power brokers roaming about the court. The capital is a power hub, swarming with lobbyists and influence peddlers in every field of state activity. Two years ago, a whistle blower brought to the Supreme Court the log book kept at the official residence of a former CBI director, which showed that wheeler dealers trooped to his house for nocturnal conclaves. Last week’s events, followed by the setting up of a committee headed by a former judge to look into the shady dealings around the court, tended to confirm what was till then rumours.

The court itself has discounted geographical distances in legal procedure. Last week, it directed examination of a witness in Nigeria by a sessions court in Churu, Rajasthan, via video conference. Earlier, a similar order was passed by an Indian court to reach persons in the US. Dangerous prisoners in Bihar are often examined in criminal court on video. Therefore, Delhi is not the only place to conduct legal proceedings.

However, Supreme Court judges have persistently objected to setting up of benches in places other than Delhi. Their main objection is that it would affect the unitary character of the constitutional court and dilute the integrity of the institution. This argument has again become weak in the electronic age when AI is poised to take over much of judicial work including research. There is also some irony in the judges’ stand as they pass conflicting judgments sitting in 14 adjacent court rooms. That is why hundreds of cases are referred to larger benches. In any case, the integrity of the court will not be affected if a vacation bench moved south for two months. 

A vacation bench consisting of one or two judges now hears a limited number of urgent matters. Such benches used to sit only one or two days a week, though the number of sittings has increased lately. Even then they finish the list of some 30 new petitions before lunch time. Half of them are dismissed at the threshold, the judges remarking, “No urgency”. The bench passes mainly interim orders. This summary exercise can be done in any other city as well. It would lead the way to permanent benches or circuit benches in later stages. It would allay southern discomfort.

The Supreme Court has so far kept a stony face confronted with at least eight Law Commission reports and a Parliamentary Committee report that recommended establishment of benches in other parts of the country. A 2015 petition pointing out the constitutional power under Article 130 to set up benches in other places was dismissed with the Chief Justice sternly telling a litigant from the south, “Article 130 can be used some other time. Not now”.  

As a result of such uncompromising stance, litigants have to grin and bear wrong judgments only because they cannot afford to travel to Delhi and pay exorbitant fees charged by lawyers there.  This has been proved by several independent studies which had shown that the number of appeals is the highest from states near Delhi. Appeals from north-eastern states, for instance, are comparatively few. The curse of a Sufi saint on a Delhi king (“Dilli is far away”) is squarely applicable to the commoners who approach the Supreme Court.


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