Loud cries for setting up a bench of the Supreme Court (SC) in Chennai have been persisting for long by the litigants as well as the advocates. Even the political parties in Tamil Nadu have been steadfastly seeking the creation of an SC bench.
Besides the SC, the plea has been mooted several times by Parliamentary Standing Committees and the Law Commission. Even the Vice-President and Rajya Sabha Chairman M Venkaiah Naidu had supported the idea of setting up of branches of the SC in other parts of the country. In a function held at Chennai last year he sought to hasten the process of setting up a SC bench at Chennai.
“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,” the Vice-President had said.
The issue shot into limelight yet again with two MPs from Tamil Nadu raising the issue during the zero hour in Rajya Sabha. Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK) leader Vaiko submitted 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 cases 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.
Echoing similar concerns, DMK MP P Wilson, a senior counsel at the Madras High Court lamented that 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.
For all of them the crux is that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) could approach the President to establish a regional bench as envisaged in Article 130 of the Constitution, which 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.”
Besides access to justice, another crucial aspect that figures in most of the demands for setting up regional benches of the SC is that it would improve the judge-to-litigant ratio in India. Wilson in his plea had pointed out that at present, the ratio of SC judges to the population of the country and the docket (list of cases to be dealt with in a 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.
In Tamil Nadu, the legal fraternity is all for a Supreme Court branch in Chennai. Reflecting the same, Advocate M Purushothaman for whom the creation of a bench of the SC is a dire necessity, said, “In United States the Supreme Court has jurisdiction over all federal and state court cases that involve a point of federal law. The remaining appeals are decided at the state level itself, with them having their own Supreme Courts, called the National Court of Appeals (NCA). Even in Malaysia every district has a comprehensive court complex wherein all matters are decided at the district level including the trial and appeals that the Supreme Court there just about deals with rare cases involving a question of law.”
However, for many the prospects of the idea fructifying seem bleak as of now. Complaints are galore about vested interest in both the bench and bar at the highest-level thwarting such a move as they would end up losing their supremacy. A retired High Court judge preferring anonymity said, “As of now, there are senior counsels who charge anywhere between Rs 5 lakh to Rs 25 lakh per sitting. Hence, the opening up of an SC branch in other parts of the country meant that their prospects would be curtailed as a new crop of senior advocates will emerge affecting their dominance.”
On the other hand, easy access and timely justice can become a reality only if a comprehensive appellate system is created in every state and people do not have to rush to Delhi to establish their cause to find some relief and closure for what they are painstakingly struggling for. However, it is also felt that until the prescribed number of judges are appointed at all levels, the process of just creating a SC bench with serious lacunae at the lower level would end up in pendency and delayed justice continuing to be the order of the day.
- Over 43 lakh cases pending in the 25 High Courts as on July 2019
- Over 8 lakh cases are more than a decade old
- As much as 37 per cent of sanctioned judge-strengthis vacant
- Budget allocation for the judiciary is just 0.2 % of the GDP
- Judge-population ratio is 10.5/11 to 10 lakh
- Should be at least 50-55 to 10 lakh to ensure speedy justice