The Supreme Court on Tuesday asked the Centre to explore the possibility of having national courts of appeal in four regions across the country to decide appeals arising out of high courts’ verdicts even as the government opposed the idea, saying it was neither possible nor desirable.
A bench headed by Chief Justice of India TS Thakur asked Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi to submit his proposed arguments on the contentious issue, which the top law officer said would lower the SC’s dignity and take away an individual’s constitutional right to approach the apex court.
There is an apparent change in the stand of the Supreme Court, which has been consistently rejecting demands for setting up its regional benches.
The court also asked senior advocate KK Venugopal, assisting the bench as a ‘friend of court’, to place his suggestions before the bench that shall frame issues on April 4 and refer the matter to a constitution bench.
“We want to initiate a debate on this, though the government does not support it. Today our 98% time is wasted in reading files relating to traffic offences or cheque bounce cases. We might dismiss them finally, but we still have to give our time,” the CJI told Rohatgi, who said the SC must not entertain every appeal filed before it.
“The solution does not lie with creating courts of appeal because it would not bring down litigation. The Supreme Court has to exercise restraint on the manner of interference under its constitutional power. Today people take chances and come to Supreme Court on every issue, including challenging an adjournment order,” Rohatgi argued, admitting he as a private lawyer too appeared in cases that the SC should not consider.
The proposed courts of appeal are a new set of courts below the SC and above high courts in the hierarchy of court system in India. Under the present system, litigants directly go to the SC against decisions of a high court, leading to piling up of nearly 60,000-odd cases in the top court.
The demand for creating regional benches of the Supreme Court has been quite old, particularly from southern states. The Law Commission had in its 229th report submitted to the government in 2009 recommended setting up of four regional benches at Delhi, Chennai/Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai to deal with appeals arising out of high courts.
But the Supreme Court rejected it in 2010, saying dividing the Supreme Court would affect the country’s unitary character. A Full Court comprising all SC judges reiterated its earlier resolutions passed in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2006 in this regard.
Puducherry-based advocate Vasanta Kumar has filed a public interest petition in the SC seeking a direction to the government to set up courts of appeal at Chennai, Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai. He wanted them to be the last court of appeal – above high courts -- and their decisions undisputable unless questions of law remained unanswered. Only such unanswered questioned of law should be entertained by the SC, he demanded.
Justice Thakur underlined that a spurt in litigation had overburdened the SC judges and it wasn’t feasible to increase the present strength of 30.
“Today, at least one lakh cases are filed every year in the Supreme Court. In the next 20 years it will go up to five lakhs. You cannot have 150 judges to tackle the litigation explosion because more judges would lead to conflicting judgments and confusion on the legal position on an issue,” the CJI said.
Venugopal strongly backed the bench’s concern and said the present judicial structure violated a citizen’s constitutional right to access to justice. He said statistics revealed that out of 10 cases filed, 9.5 belonged to north Indian states. “Southern states are affected badly because they do not have the means and facilities to reach the SC. For them access to justice is an illusion,” the senior counsel contended.
The top court should ideally focus only on adjudication of issues of constitutional importance, Venugopal said.
CJI Thakur said the SC will formulate issues for the larger bench to hear the issue. Some of the points are: whether pendency of a case for more than eight years in SC amounts to violation of access to justice; whether access to justice is an illusion for people living in southern states who fail to approach the SC due to lack of means and facilities.
Petitioner Kumar said people faced difficulties -- both physical and financial -- because they have to travel to New Delhi to file appeals in the SC; stay in the national capital indefinitely; consult senior lawyers; and pay for hotel bills.