Context: The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. No aspect of life has escaped unscathed. This includes the functioning of Indian courts and tribunals.
- The Indian judiciary has limited its work to hearing urgent matters via video conferencing during the pandemic.
- This way of functioning of courts is considered as an opportunity to improve the IT infrastructure of courts so that they can move to video conference hearings as the norm.
- But any such move without first revamping procedural law would be futile.
Few of existing problems in the judiciary and their solutions
Frequent adjournments sought for procedural matters
In the subordinate civil courts and High Courts, a significant time of daily proceedings is taken up by cases where only adjournments are sought for procedural matters like filing of replies.
- There is a need to devise a system where cases are not listed before the court unless all the documents are filed within strict timelines and every procedural requirement complied with.
- The existing infrastructure is considered enough to enable this as said by experts.
- Listing can be done before the court only in cases requiring urgent interim intervention from the court.
- For this, while the matter is pending procedural completion, it can be put up for verification of urgency by a judicial officer or a judge upon oral or written application.
Specific interventions in the context of COVID-19
- When courts reopen, apart from fresh cases, only a limited number of cases that are ripe for arguments can be posted.
- This can be done with sufficient notice to the Bar Associations that requests for adjournments will be looked at askance.
- This will ensure that courtrooms are not crowded.
- Circulation of the cases to be listed in advance will also give advocates enough time to take instructions from clients and prepare for arguments.
Overburdening of SC due to Special Leave Petitions (SLPs)
Article 136 of the Constitution enables people to file a petition seeking leave to appeal a decision of any judicial or quasi-judicial authority.
The Apex Court grants leave to appeal if
- the petition raises a question of law of general public importance or
- the judgment appealed against is especially perverse, which would require interference from the Court.
The provision has been abused over the years to only to overburden the docket of the Supreme Court.
- Various reports show that SLPs comprise about 60-70% of the Supreme Court’s docket.
- Out of these cases 80-90% of SLPs are dismissed, which means only 10-20% of such cases raise important questions of law. This ends up taking up a lot of time of the SC.
However, the Supreme Court was never intended to be a court of appeal, barring such appeals which specific statutes provide for. The High Courts are usually meant to be the final courts of appeal. But currently SLPs are now being treated as the last round of appeal.
- A simple solution would be to do away with the immediate oral hearing of SLPs.
- The Supreme Court Rules,2013 could be amended to provide for a structure of pre-hearing of SLPs.
- Every SLP must be accompanied by an application for an oral hearing which must be decided first by the Court, and that too in chambers.
- To help the Court for that, a cadre of judicial research assistants made up of qualified lawyers should be created.
- The research assistants can go through each SLP and cull out the important questions of law as envisioned in Article 136.
- Thereafter, the SC may or may not allow applications for oral hearings based on whether such questions of law merit its attention. Only such SLPs in which oral hearing is permitted should be listed for hearing.
- SLPs in which no questions of law are raised, or frivolous ones are raised, should be dismissed without an oral hearing and upon imposition of costs.
- The associated penalties will ensure that only meritorious SLPs get judicial attention and will deter people from filing frivolous SLPs.
- This method will also reduce pendency exponentially as the system will free up the SC’s time to hear statutory appeals and matters pertaining to the interpretation of the Constitution or constitutional validity of laws or executive actions.
consuming Procedure of filing reply to appeals
Even in cases of statutory appeals, and appeals where leave is granted in SLPs, the Court should do away with the system of filing reply to the appeals and rejoinders to such replies.
- Every case can be decided based on records of the subordinate courts.
- As no new arguments on facts can be raised before the Court in appeals, the system of filing additional pleadings should be rendered redundant as the pleadings are simple regurgitation of the records of the subordinate courts.
- Most of such appeals can be dwelled upon by judges and their research assistants in the chamber, and only such appeals should be granted detailed hearings where the judges require clarifications.
- The above mechanisms will ensure that the SC moves away from an oral hearing-based system to a written submission-based one.