By Lokendra Malik
In 2018, the Supreme Court observed in the Shanti Bhushan case:
“Thus, the faith of the people is the bedrock on which the edifice of judicial review and efficacy of the adjudication are founded. Erosion of credibility of the judiciary, in the public mind, for whatever reasons, is greatest threat to the independence of the judiciary. We live in an age of accountability. What is required of Judges is changing. Judgments of the Courts are widely discussed, debated, and even criticised. In this age of technology, open society and liberal democracy coupled with varied nature of cases raising complex issues which are decided by the Courts, including ‘hard cases’ any outcome whereof may be susceptible to criticism, as both views may appear to be equally strong. In that sense, the judiciary walks the tightrope of independence.”
These insightful words are more relevant today when several constitutional pundits, scholars and commentators are talking about the pendency of many important constitutional cases in the Supreme Court. Timely adjudication of cases that touch upon the fundamental rights of people is necessary to sustain their trust in the judiciary. And the Supreme Court owes a duty to clear the backlog of cases to restore its credibility, dignity, authority and respect in the eyes of the people.
Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana assumed the highest judicial office during a difficult time when the collegium was almost dysfunctional in terms of selection of judges of the Court. One chief justice retired without making even a single appointment of a judge to the apex court. At one particular time, there were ten vacancies of judges in the Supreme Court. Thankfully, CJI Ramana convinced his collegium colleagues to finalise the names of ten judges. He also convinced the government to implement the collegium’s recommendations without delay.
As a result of this proactive approach, the Supreme Court got nine judges this year. This was not an ordinary development. For the first time, the Supreme Court got three women judges, one of whom is likely to become the CJI after a few years if the line of seniority remains undisturbed.
A brilliant Supreme Court senior lawyer has also been appointed as a judge and is also likely to become the CJI after a few years. In addition, CJI Ramana expedited the appointment of High Court judges by recommending many names to the government. The Supreme Court collegium also cleared the name of Saurabh Kirpal, whose name was deferred four times, for appointment as a judge to the Delhi High Court. If the government approves his name, he will be the first openly gay judge in any High Court in the country. It was a big recognition of the human rights and dignity of sexual minorities in the higher judiciary. Thus, CJI Ramana made a visible contribution to the administrative side of the Supreme Court during the last few months.
But many challenges remain on the judicial side of the apex court for CJI Ramana. During the Covid-19 crisis, the judicial machinery worked slowly. Thousands of lawyers were displaced because of lack of work and paucity of internet facilities. Many are struggling, but some privileged lawyers are making hay while the sun shines because of online hearings. They do not want resumption of physical hearings because they appear in several courts online.
Sadly, the digital justice system has widened the inequality in the bar.
Physical hearings are being resumed slowly in the top court and some High Courts but many lawyers believe the time has come when the CJI should stop online hearings and restore the old system of physical hearings. Also, the Court should decide cases speedily as there are huge arrears of cases because of online hearings. Restoring physical hearings regularly will boost trust in the judiciary, given our constitutional commitment to the cause of speedy justice.
The Supreme Court is a constitutional court. It is the custodian of the Constitution and guardian of the fundamental rights of people. It declares the law of the land as per Article 141. Sometimes, it also makes a law to fill up the vacuum. Its job is not only to decide ordinary disputes but the constitutional destiny of the nation.
As of now, several important constitutional cases are pending in the Court that need early adjudication. Some cases such as the Sabarimala, CAA/ NRC, election bonds, Article 370, sedition, CBI and UAPA are pending in the Court for a long time. These cases affect the lives of people on a large scale and their timely adjudication is a must for strengthening the rule of law and constitutionalism in the country.
Being the first among equals, it is the CJI who can persuade his colleagues to expedite the hearings of all important constitutional cases and clear the arrears of cases. The greatest duty of a judge is to decide cases as per the law without any delay because delayed justice defeats the very purpose of justice.
Being the master of the roster, CJI Ramana has to take effective initiatives to adjudicate the constitutional issues pending in the Court. This is necessary to discourage those who criticise the judiciary and the justice-delivery mechanism for delayed justice. The judiciary must live up to the faith reposed by the people because it is the last hope for them.
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—The writer is advocate Supreme Court of India