By Lokendra Malik
Justice NV Ramana became the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) on April 24, this year. He is a judge who has delivered hundreds of landmark judgments in the Supreme Court and High Courts. His commitment to the cause of protection of human rights, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and secularism are well-known. He has joined the highest judicial office of the country at a time that has brought many challenges before him. Of course, along with the challenges, he also has some opportunities to make a visible contribution to the Supreme Court. I hope he overcomes all the challenges and does not miss the opportunities available to him for protecting the reputation, glory, credibility, integrity and majesty of the Indian judiciary. Let me throw some light on the challenges and opportunities that may come before him in the coming days:
Firstly, Justice Ramana should recharge the functioning of the Supreme Court Collegium that is facing a deadlock for more than a year. The last appointment of a Supreme Court judge was made by the Collegium-led by then CJI Ranjan Gogoi in September 2019. CJI SA Bobde could not recommend the name of even a single Supreme Court judge during his entire tenure spanning over 17 months. Although he called several Collegium meetings, all such meetings ended on an inconclusive note because of the differences among the Collegium members about the names of judges proposed by the CJI.
With a sanctioned strength of 34 judges, six vacancies of judges are lying vacant in the Supreme Court and four judges will retire by the end of this year. Three more judges will retire by August 2022, and with this, CJI Ramana will have an opportunity to recommend the names of around 13 Supreme Court judges during his tenure ending next year in August. Very few chief justices get this kind of opportunity to appoint so many judges.
But, first of all, the heavy burden is on CJI Ramana to initiate the appointment process of judges for the Supreme Court by breaking the deadlock in the Collegium and taking his colleagues into confidence. The Collegium members have to engage with each other with an open mind for building consensus about the judges to be appointed to the apex court. The legal fraternity has lots of expectations from CJI Ramana.
Secondly, India needs more diversity on the bench of the Supreme Court. CJI Ramana needs to ensure that the apex court should reflect the make-up and secular image of the country. Currently, the top court has only one woman judge and one Muslim judge. It is a matter of grave concern for all of us. Our judge-makers should give a fair representation to the women and minorities in the higher judiciary so that all sections of our society could repose trust in the institution of the judiciary. There should always be at least four or five women and minority judges in the apex court. Not only this, but the time has also come when a woman should lead the Indian judiciary. The Supreme Court Collegium can turn this dream into a reality by appointing brilliant judges from diverse backgrounds that can help restore the public trust in the judicial system of the country.
Thirdly, some urgent measures are required to clear the backlog of cases. At present, around 60,000 cases are pending in the apex court, while more than 50 lakh cases are pending in the High Courts across the country. All the courts, including the Supreme Court, are functioning digitally, during the Covid-19 crisis, adding more arrears of cases day by day. So, there is an urgent need to take appropriate measures for clearing the pending cases keeping in view the safety concerns. In addition, 400 vacancies of judges are lying vacant in the different High Courts that need to be filled up soon. CJI Ramana may consider encouraging the High Court Collegiums led by the chief justices of the High Courts to recommend the names of judges to the central government without any delay. Recently, a Supreme Court bench led by then CJI Bobde had prescribed the timeline for judicial appointments, and now CJI Ramana may persuade the central government to clear the appointment of judges as per the guidelines laid down by the Supreme Court. Now the central government cannot put the Collegium’s recommendations on hold for a long time. But the CJI has to push the government to expedite judicial appointments.
Fourthly, several constitutional cases are pending in the Supreme Court for a long time. These cases touch upon the politico-legal life of our society, and their timely adjudication is necessary to strengthen the public confidence in the institution of the judiciary. Admittedly, the people have lost faith in the institution of the judiciary during the last few years and something needs to be done urgently to restore the public trust in the judicial branch. Many people believe that our courts take too much time in deciding the cases and delayed justice defeats the basic purpose of justice.
This public perception should be changed by adjudicating cases speedily. For example, some cases such as the Abolition of Article 370 issue, right to religious freedom, CAA/NRC case, electoral bond case, farm laws case, etc. must be decided expeditiously given their socio-political significance. These cases will affect the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, and some of them will also have international ramifications. “In constitutional matters delay in the hearing and disposal of appeals or petitions is a great disservice to the public, because it is essential that the final court should lay down the law on important questions with reasonable speed,” said eminent constitutional jurist HM Seervai about the delay in the adjudication of constitutional issues.
Fifthly, lakhs of lawyers are struggling during the Covid-19 crisis. Mostly, all courts are functioning online during this time. The Supreme Court is also hearing the cases virtually. Only some urgent cases are listed for hearing before the benches. Given the surge in the Covid-19 cases, it seems the Court cannot start physical hearings at least for the next six months. As a result of this situation, the difficulties of lawyers have increased more. All lawyers are not fortunate to have high-quality network facilities. Many of them have shifted to their hometowns that have low communication networks. Some solutions to these problems should be explored for mitigating the suffering of lawyers, and more cases should be listed for hearing so that the lawyers could contribute more.
Let us hope CJI Ramana makes serious efforts to address the above-mentioned issues and challenges and utilise all the opportunities to protect judicial independence and prestige. He and his colleagues should seriously introspect about the Supreme Court’s functioning and take necessary corrective measures to improve the working system of the Supreme Court Collegium, its registry, and other branches that are involved in the administration of justice. The Court is an institution of governance that cannot work effectively without constitutional accountability and morality.
Let me conclude this note with the words of the eminent jurist Salman Khurshid: “India has a relatively quick turnover of Chief Justices of the Supreme Court with an average span of one and a half years in recent times. How much can a Chief Justice mould the court proceedings and in term of jurisprudence in such a short tenure remain a moot question? Yet each Chief Justice leaves a mark and important footprints for succeeding generally.”
—The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India