Above: The Supreme Court itself had said in a judgment that setting up branches in other parts of the country would be considered by the government
Despite the demand for branches in other parts of India, there has been no forward movement. The idea was mooted earlier by the Law Commission and Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu
By R Ramasubramanian in Chennai
Are Supreme Court branches outside Delhi a mirage? Recently, two Tamil Nadu MPs in the Rajya Sabha raised the issue of setting up a branch of the Supreme Court in south India, especially Chennai. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) member Vaiko and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) representative P Wilson raised this issue recently during Zero Hour. Vaiko, an ace parliamentarian with over 25 years of experience, argued that opening a branch of the apex court in Chennai would not only help the judiciary in reducing the backlog of cases in the Supreme Court—which is at 54,103 as of now—but also ensure justice for litigants in remote places in several parts of the country.
“If a litigant wants to appeal against any High Court order, he has to travel from his respective place to Delhi. The travelling and hotel costs in Delhi and above all, the fee for lawyers of the Supreme Court are huge. Establishing a regional bench of the Court in south India, especially Chennai, would ensure justice for the downtrodden and the poorest of the poor in the country,” Vaiko said in his speech. He added that the chief justice of India (CJI) could approach the president to establish a regional bench and he could do so under Article 130 of the Constitution. The Article says: “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.”
Similar concerns were raised by DMK MP and former Additional Solicitor General of India P Wilson. He said that (when it comes to litigants outside Delhi), access to the Supreme Court is restricted only to those who are affluent and rich. “The litigants should have the economic means to travel and afford a lawyer in Delhi. This effectively rules out a large percentage of the population who do not have the economic means, and therefore can litigate only up to the High Court,” he said.
The idea has been mooted several times by parliamentary standing committees, the Law Commission (in its 229th report) and by Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu himself. Further, Wilson said that setting up regional benches of the Supreme Court would improve the judge-to-litigant ratio in India. At present, the ratio of Supreme Court judges to the population of the country and the docket (list of cases to be dealt with in a particular court) of the Court is minuscule. He said, for a total population of 133.92 crore, the strength of Supreme Court judges is just 34.
“It is expedient that in the interest of administration and access to justice, which is a fundamental right, the law ministry must take forward this proposal with the chief justice of India …. Even otherwise, it is always open to the government to introduce appropriate Constitutional amendments to mandate this,” Wilson added.
The demand for setting up branches of the Supreme Court in important state capitals is an old one. Interestingly, in a 1986 judgment, the Court said that opening branches in other parts of the country would be considered by the government. In addition to this, two separate Law Commission reports had also recommended the setting up of Supreme Court branches.
The Law Commission’s 125th report said: “The Supreme Court sits in New Delhi alone. The Government of India on a couple of occasions sought the opinion of the Supreme Court of India for setting up branches in the South. This proposal did not find favour with the Supreme Court. The result is that those coming from distant places like Tamil Nadu in South, Gujarat in West and Assam and other states in the East have to spend a huge amount on travel to reach the Supreme Court. An adjournment becomes prohibitive.”
In addition, the 229th Law Commission report said that one bench each can be set up in the northern, southern, eastern and western regions to deal with all appellate work arising out of orders/ judgments of High Courts. But so far, there has been no forward movement on this issue.
Another related issue has also cropped up in the past. A demand for setting up of a National Court of Appeals in Chennai, Kolkata, Mumbai and Delhi was raised. This model prevails in the US, where all 50 states have their own Supreme Courts, called the National Court of Appeals (NCA).
In the NCA, all appeals against High Court orders/judgments related to criminal, civil and other matters are taken up for hearing/scrutiny, while in the US Supreme Court, only matters related to Constitutional issues are entertained. All other appeals are dealt with by the NCA.
In fact, a petition was filed a few years ago in the Supreme Court of India praying that the Court direct the government to constitute an NCA. However, the Modi government opposed this move and the idea was dropped. The Congress’s 2019 election manifesto promised the setting up of NCAs.
But this is easier said than done as it requires a Constitutional amendment. “This is difficult as both Houses of Parliament have to agree to this proposal and not all parties are showing an interest in it. The BJP, in fact, opposed it. But creating Supreme Court branches in the four corners of the country is much easier because it needs just an executive order and the government can do this by consulting the chief justice,” said Wilson to India Legal.
Venkaiah Naidu supported the idea of setting up of branches of the Supreme Court in other parts of the country. “We need to bring the judicial system closer to people. Expanding the Supreme Court bench and having separate benches in different regions and at least one in Chennai on a trial basis has been suggested by the Parliamentary Standing Committee of Law and Justice and I think it is high time to do this,” he said at a function held in Chennai a few months back.
In Tamil Nadu, the legal fraternity is all for a Supreme Court branch in Chennai. “This is the need of the hour. The centre in consultation with the Supreme Court must establish an apex court bench in Chennai. Already, there are branches of several High Courts functioning in India. The Bombay High Court has got an Aurangabad Bench, the Allahabad High Court has a Lucknow Bench, the Madras High Court has a Madurai Bench. So what’s wrong with having a Supreme Court bench in Chennai? It is needed to minimise the suffering of litigants. In fact, our manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections promised a Supreme Court bench in Chennai,” said BM Velu, an advocate.
But in spite of all the support, the prospects of the idea fructifying are bleak. Judicial sources allege that powerful lobbies in the bench and the bar in Delhi won’t allow this to happen. “A senior advocate in the Supreme Court charges between Rs 7.5 lakh to Rs 25 lakh for each appearance. If you open branches in other parts of the country, a new crop of senior advocates will come up and make a dent in the earnings of senior advocates of the Supreme Court,” said a retired Madras High Court judge on condition of anonymity.
The writing on the wall is clear.