Kartikeya Misra and Vishakha Shakya
The Supreme Court of India is often reckoned as the custodian of the rights guaranteed under the Constitution for a reason. It has been given powers to issue directions or orders or writs for the enforcement of rights under Part III through Article 32 (deemed as the heart and soul of the Constitution by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar). It has been the view of several eminent legal personalities that the top court should act as a court that decides on important legal and constitutional issues.
However, the pendency data provides a very problematic image of how the court is not able to efficiently deal with substantial constitutional matters in the country. The data provided by the Supreme Court itself as on 01-12-2022 the Supreme Court has 69598 pending matters. This figure has increased from 59670 cases before the pandemic (01-02-2020). Another study pointed out that of the cases decided by Supreme Court only 10% are constitutional matters or PILs. Further concerns were raised when Supreme Court itself lamented the huge amount of bail applications that were pending which clogged the higher echelons of the Indian judiciary.
More importantly, out of this sea of pending matters, only 488 matters are such which are before a 5-judge or greater bench. These 488 matters are those substantial questions of law that are crucial for the whole nation and have to be dealt with on priority. The Demonetization verdict which came after 6 years has become a stark reminder of the effect of delays on the nation. The Judgement forces new questions on living in the status quo to uphold the Supreme Court’s status as the “People’s Court”.
CASE LISTING REFORMS: A RAY OF HOPE?
There has been a lot of outcry for the burgeoning caseload in the Supreme Court; a problem accentuated in the aftermath of the pandemic. It is not the case that this problem is not being dealt with. In fact, the bench has been making active efforts to counter this pendency. Most notable steps have been taken recently in the tenure of former CJI UU Lalit. This was due to a new case listing system introduced by him. The circular notified on 30th August mentioned that all fresh maters verified on Saturday, Monday, and Tuesday will be listed on Monday in the next week and those verified on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday will be listed on Friday in the next week. If the number of matters earmarked for either Monday or Friday is in excess, the matters will be listed on the coming Friday and Monday, respectively. This system was better than the earlier system in the sense that regular matters were also getting proper time.
In the earlier system, miscellaneous matters took up most of the time; hence, regular matters were taken up late or were not taken. During his tenure, each bench handled approximately 60 cases daily. As a result, in the 74 days of CJI Lalit’s tenure, 10000 cases were disposed against 8700 freshly filed, and the overall pendency fell from 70310 (Sep 1) to 69461 (Oct 1). Also, 25 Constitutional Bench matters were listed, and 6 Constitution Benches were constituted in his tenure.
However, as it is said all that glitter is not gold, the case listing system also drew a fair share of criticism. A bench led by SK Kaul had criticised the lack of adequate time for matters fixed for hearing, as the number of matters listed for the afternoon hearing was very high. This volume of cases being dealt with raised concerns of the benches being overburdened. There have been incidents when the judges have refused to give adjournment on the cases saying that they have read the files by working late in the evening and that the advocates shouldn’t expect them to devote the same time some other day.
CJI Chandrachud has brought in his own reforms and has changed the listing system to an automatic one, prioritizing bail and transfer petitions. All benches are directed to hear 10 bail matters and 10 transfer petitions before the regular listed cases. Interestingly, in the first month of CJI Chandrachud, the court has disposed 946 cases more with respect to the new cases that have come in. However, With no vacation benches this time in the winter, the pendency is set to rise in the new year.
The Law ministry in the Lok Sabha also pointed out the multi-faceted nature of the problems faced by the court. There is an increase in filings due to factors such as increased population and awareness, and piles of cases are adding up. These figures point towards the need of broad-based reforms in the higher echelons of the Indian Judiciary for it to become more accessible and efficient.
DEMONETIZATION JUDGMENT: A SAGA OF 4 HOURS AND 6 YEARS
In 2016, the government had demonetized 500 and 1000 currency notes in a hasty announcement. Recently, the Supreme Court gave the verdict on demonetization by the government. The concerns relating to demonetization were very serious as RBI’s independence and role was put into question. In fact, the issue was put before a Constitution Bench just because the issues involved before the court were substantial and needed to be discussed before a larger bench.
Apart from all the legal and economic conclusions of the verdict. It also sheds light on the Supreme Court’s functioning as a Constitutional Court. It took around six years for the top court to decide on an issue that had affected the lives of each and every Indian. Also, the argument from the side of the government stressed on the delay, pointing out that giving a decision when no tangible relief could be given looked like “unscrambling a scrambled egg”.
PERMANENT BENCHES: A REVIEW OF THE MASTER OF THE ROSTER
There have long been discussions on structural revamps in the SC, one of the most tempting and humongous of which has been the demand for regional benches. The idea of regional benches has been in discussions for a pretty long time in the legal domain. The latest demands have come even from the office of the CJI. However, the development of technology and huge logistical challenges have always acted as a big pushback for the issue. Arguments from the sides will go on, but the problem of pendency still looms large. Until there is some concrete way forward, the court cannot lay hands and act helpless in that scenario.
The Court needs prioritization at the time. The creation of Constitution Bench does take up time and engages more judges. As a result, a lesser number of division and three judge benches are formed. Currently, the Constitution benches are formed by the CJI on an ad-hoc basis which has also led to differences in the Constitution Bench appearances of judges. Still, the substantial matters have to be given adequate time.
The idea of having permanent Constitution Benches has been in the pipeline for quite a time but the idea has not seen the light of day. Creating a permanent bench will lead to the creation of machinery to help clear constitutional matters, which currently end up in cold storage. It would also help in decreasing centralization of powers, the current status quo of the CJI-led court will change in a positive way, when there will be a set procedure for the appointment of Constitution Benches.
The Supreme Court cannot sit mute on crucial issues. The problem of pendency has to be dealt with simultaneously, and in clearing loads of cases, the issues that lie at the heart of the nation must not be done away with.
India has a great variety of diversity, which makes its challenges unique and out of the ordinary. As a result, the solutions that should be evolved to address these problems must also be unique. There should not be much shying away from broad-based reforms if they have the potential to bring in major welcome changes. Verdicts like that of demonetization show the crucial role of the Indian Supreme Court and the damage that can be done by delays in the prime national questions.
The authors are second-year law students from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow
Image Credits: Binay Sinha
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