Regional benches of the Supreme Court

GS Paper II

News Excerpt

Recently, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice informed the Lok Sabha that the Law Ministry has accepted its recommendation to establish regional benches of the Supreme Court across India.

More details on the news

  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice had earlier noted that the demand for having regional benches of the Supreme Court is about ‘access to justice,’ which is a fundamental right under the Constitution.

Benches of the Supreme Court

  • The Supreme Court of India has three jurisdictions under the Constitution: original, appellate, and advisory. The Supreme Court serves as a Constitutional Court as well as a Court of Appeal. The Court sits in benches of varying sizes, as determined by the Registry on the directions of the Chief Justice of India (CJI).
  • Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court typically comprise five, seven, or nine judges who deliberate on a specific issue related to constitutional law. Article 145(3) of the Constitution provides for the setting up of a Constitution Bench. 
    • It says a minimum of five judges need to sit for deciding a case involving a “substantial question of law as to the interpretation of the Constitution”, or for hearing any reference under Article 143, which deals with the power of the President to consult the Court.
  • Cases before the Supreme Court are heard by Division Benches (of two judges) or full Benches (three judges) to examine a wide range of topics, such as film prohibitions/restrictions or charges that a police commissioner abused his position.

View of Supreme Court on setting of regional benches

  • The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice pointed out that the Supreme Court has been “consistently” rejecting the idea and that the matter is sub-judice.
  • In 2019, former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi supported the view, but minimal progress was made during his tenure. By contrast, in the 74-day tenure of former Chief Justice U.U. Lalit, 25 Constitution Bench matters were listed before five-judge benches.
  • Recently, CJI D.Y. Chandrachud announced his intent to create Constitution Benches of varied strengths as a permanent feature of the Court.

Law Commission on setting of regional benches

  • In 1984, the 10th Law Commission of India (95th Report) under Justice K K Mathew recommended that “the Supreme Court of India should consist of two Divisions, namely (a) Constitutional Division, and (b) Legal Division”, and that “only matters of Constitutional law may be assigned to the proposed Constitutional Division”.
  • The 11th Law Commission under the chairmanship of Justice D A Desai (125th Report, 1988) “reiterates(d) that the recommendation for splitting the (Supreme) Court into two halves deserves to be implemented”.
  • The 18th  Law Commission under Justice A R Lakshmanan (229th Report, 2009) recommended that “a Constitution Bench be set up at Delhi to deal with constitutional and other allied issues”, and “four Cassation Benches be set up in the Northern region/zone at Delhi, the Southern region/zone at Chennai/Hyderabad, the Eastern region/zone at Kolkata and the Western region/zone at Mumbai to deal with all appellate work arising out of the orders/judgments of the High Courts of the particular region”. 

Law Commission of India

  • Law Commission of India is a non-statutory body and is constituted by a notification of the Government of India, Ministry of Law & Justice, Department of Legal Affairs with a definite terms of reference to carry out research in the field of law and the Commission makes recommendations to the Government (in the form of Reports) as per its terms of reference.
  • The Law Commission has taken up various subjects on references made by Department of Legal Affairs, Supreme Court and High Courts.
  • The Law Commission of India provides excellent thought provoking and vital review of the laws in India.

Argument for creating regional benches of Supreme Court

  • Constitutional Authority for Benches: Article 130 says that “the Supreme Court shall sit in Delhi or in such other place or places, as the Chief Justice of India may, with the approval of the President, from time to time, appoint.” 
    • It shows that the Supreme Court Rules give the Chief Justice of India the power to constitute Benches.
  • Access to Justice for All: People are reluctant to accept arbitrary actions of the state and its agencies and are increasingly approaching courts of law. The outcome of such cases demands further adjudication by the Supreme Court. Also, it becomes difficult for people living in States far away from Delhi to agitate their cause.
  • Importance of Litigant Presence: It is easy to say that the presence of a litigant is not required in appellate forums but the reality is that every litigant wishes to visit his lawyer and witness court proceedings involving his case.
  • Insufficient Case Disposal Rates: In 2023, the Supreme Court witnessed a 31% increase in the disposal of cases compared to 2022.
    • However, such a disposal rate is negligible when compared to the total pendency of cases.
  • High Case Pendency: In the Supreme Court, a little more than 80,000 cases are currently pending adjudication out of which 60,000 cases are civil. This cannot be alleviated only through usual methods and is highly dependent upon the efforts and efficiency of the Chief Justice.
  • Boosting Judicial System with More Judges: The establishment of regional benches will increase the number of judges as well as lawyers resulting in a much-needed boost to our judicial system.
  • Democratization of the Bar: The setting up of regional benches would also lead to greater opportunities and the democratization of the Bar.
    • For example, there was lots of opposition when the jurisdiction of the Tis Hazari Court was divided into different district courts. However, 10-15 years down the line, a vibrant District Bar in Saket, Rohini, and Karkardooma can be seen.

Argument against creating regional benches of Supreme Court

  • Insufficient Rectification of Imbalance: While a majority of the cases filed in the Supreme Court do arise from High Courts close to Delhi, this imbalance will not be rectified by merely constituting regional benches.
  • Potential for Frivolous Petitions: There is a possibility of numerous frivolous petitions being filed with easier access to justice. Instead, a mechanism should be put in place to scrutinize the types of petitions that are permitted to be admitted in the top court.
  • Proposal for a Different Judicial System: Irrespective of the pendency rate, India should take inspiration from France and implement a system comprising a separate court of appeal and courts of cassation — a proposal recommended by the Law Commission of India in its 95th and 229th reports. A permanent appellate court along with several courts of cassation should be established.
    • The permanent appellate court, like in the U.S., should include nine of the senior-most judges from the cassation courts.
    • It should sit en banc and hear only constitutional cases while the cassation courts adjudicate upon appeals arising out of non-constitutional matters.
  • At present, the Supreme Court is overburdened with matters such as transfer petitions, arbitral appeals, etc. which it has no business hearing. It would be appropriate that instead, a court of cassation hears such matters. 

Court of Cassation

  • The Court of Cassation is the highest court in the country. It rules on the legality of judicial decisions.
  • It does check whether the main formal requirements have been met and whether there were no procedural errors. 
  • It also examines whether the law has been correctly applied and interpreted.
  • If a party does not agree with a civil or criminal decision at last instance for any of the above reasons, it can go to the Court of Cassation.
  • Retention of Exclusive Supreme Court Powers: Even if regional benches are established, certain exclusive powers of the Supreme Court should be retained – its original jurisdiction under Article 131, its advisory jurisdiction under Article 143, and its writ jurisdiction under Article 32 of the Constitution.
  • Concerns About Unity and Integrity: Mukul Rohatgi, the then A-G had in March 2016 opined that the court sitting in regional benches would impair the unity, integrity, importance and majesty of the Supreme Court.

Virtual hearings

Argument in favor of virtual hearing

  • Admirable Response During Pandemic: The steps taken by the judiciary since the onset of the pandemic to switch to virtual hearings are laudable. Further, the Chief Justice has also indicated that all courts should shift to virtual hearings.
    • However, even today, in many forums such as the Central Administrative Tribunal and the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission of India, virtual hearing facilities are not used. Many judges also prefer lawyers to be physically present.
  • Preliminary and Admission Hearings Virtually: A mechanism should be put in place that allows preliminary and admission hearings to take place virtually, while final hearings are conducted physically.

Argument against the virtual hearing

  • Ineffectiveness as Regional Benches Alternative: The hybrid hearings may not be an effective alternative to regional benches. While the use of technology is good for judicial administration, court management, and handling the case flow, it is not a viable solution for judicial adjudication.
  • Maintaining Objectivity through Physical Hearings: The physical hearing of cases helps to maintain objectivity with regard to the propositions advanced before the court.
  • Role of Open Court System: Our open court system plays a vital role in ensuring that a judge maintains the appropriate attitude and demeanor.
  • Importance of In-Person Presence: The presence of lawyers and litigants in a courtroom also helps a judge to work without any fear or favor. Therefore, virtual court facilities should be used only in exceptional circumstances.

Conclusion:

The debate on regional benches for the Supreme Court involves considerations of accessibility, case management, and judicial efficiency. While proponents see it as vital for access, opponents emphasize potential drawbacks. Striking a balance necessitates thorough evaluation and careful implementation of reforms.

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