We burn midnight oil even during vacation: SC | Latest News India - Hindustan Times
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We burn midnight oil even during vacation: SC

By, New Delhi
May 23, 2024 04:42 AM IST

The Supreme Court on Wednesday addressed criticism about its schedule and work hours, turning the spotlight back on the Centre.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday addressed criticism about its schedule and work hours, turning the spotlight back on the Centre, highlighting that those in governance who question the judiciary’s efficiency and vacations should first ensure that the Union government’s appeals are filed in a timely manner.

The Supreme Court. (ANI)
The Supreme Court. (ANI)

“It is unfortunate that despite judges putting in so much, it is said that we work for a few hours and have long vacations. There was a recent article about us... What are we doing here, burning the midnight oil even during vacations,” a bench of justices Dipankar Datta and Satish Chadra Sharma remarked.

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The bench was apparently referencing a recent article by Sanjeev Sanyal, a member of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic advisory council. Sanyal had called for judicial reforms, arguing that judges work fewer hours and enjoy long vacations.

Since some of those criticising the Supreme Court are in governance, justice Datta added, the top court would expect the Centre to file its petition within the stipulated time “at least in one matter”.

“Let one matter come to us within the limitation period prescribed under law. There are hardly any matters which are filed within the stipulated time. Authorities never come within the prescribed time of 60 or 90 days. All petitions are filed in this court with applications for the condonation of delay. So those who castigate judiciary should take note of this,” commented the bench, prompting the senior counsel present in the courtroom to show solidarity with the apex court judges.

Solicitor general Tushar Mehta and additional solicitor general SV Raju called such criticism misplaced, adding some people perhaps fail to acknowledge that judges work in two shifts: in the courtroom and after they take back work to their residential offices or chambers.

“This is the only court which works this much,” said Mehta, who found support in senior counsel and the new president of the Supreme Court Bar Association Kapil Sibal. “I have always maintained that the judges of our country are the most overworked,” said Sibal.

The sharp reminder to the government came from the bench while hearing a plea of former Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren in a money laundering case.

The exchange touched on broader issues of judicial functioning and public perceptions, sparked by Sanyal’s article. This was the second instance this month when the Supreme Court defended itself against criticism on long vacations. On May 1, a bench led by justice BR Gavai said, “People who criticise us for having long vacations do not know that we do not have a holiday on Saturdays and Sundays. These days are filled with conferences and other assignments... We also get the time to write long judgments during vacations.”

The debate over judicial vacations is ongoing. A parliamentary panel in August last year recommended ending long court vacations, citing the common man’s perception about the judiciary and the huge pendency of cases. Although the panel acknowledged that vacations are not the sole reason for case backlogs, it viewed these breaks as a “colonial legacy” causing inconvenience to litigants.

In January, at an event marking the 75th anniversary of the Supreme Court, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud addressed this criticism, wondering whether alternatives such as flexitime for lawyers and judges were possible in the present set-up.

In 2009, the law commission recommended that vacations be curtailed by at least 10 to 15 days while increasing the retirement age by at least three years. While the amendment in the Supreme Court Rules in 2014 by the then CJI RM Lodha cut the summer vacation by about three weeks, the SC’s sanctioned strength went up by just three judges and the retirement age remained static at 65. The law commission, in 1987, recommended 107 total judges per million by the year 2000. At the last count in 2022, the number stood at 21.

The criticism around vacations in the top court requires an evaluation on three key benchmarks: the bench strength of judges, the time needed to write detailed judgments and the calendar of other apex courts around the world, according to people aware of the matter.

From a sanctioned strength of eight judges in 1950 to 34 at present, statistics reveal that the rise in the volume of cases far outstripped the increase in the judges’ strength. In 1950, the SC had 1,215 cases and decided 525 of them, averaging about 75 cases per judge. However, in 2019, there were 43,613 cases filed and the apex court decided 41,100 of them – an average disposal of around 1,400 cases per judge.

Furthermore, each bench, which comprises two or three judges, handles a significant caseload, often hearing 50-60 matters daily, leaving judges with little time to examine intricate questions of law and the Constitution – work that is exhaustive and needs sifting through delicate interpretations of the law. Judges have maintained that they spend a a substantial time during vacations researching, deliberating and drafting judgments, which is a vital process for ensuring that justice is delivered with clarity and precision.

Moreover, during the break, the court registry and staff work like any other government office, and judges sit in rotation for vacation benches that hear cases five days a week. These benches not only take up urgent matters but also fresh appeals and some old cases, where the lawyers have agreed to argue during the vacation. At present, there are three vacation benches hearing at least 50 cases every day, ensuring that the wheels of justice don’t come to a grinding halt.

Comparing the vacation schedules of the Supreme Court of India with those of other apex courts worldwide may also provide valuable context. India’s Supreme Court sits for an average of 200 days every year while the US Supreme Court does so for 80. The apex court of Australia sits for only two weeks per month and does not sit at all for two months. In all, it sits for less than 100 days in a year. Similarly, Singapore’s Supreme Court sits for about 145 days in a year. The UK Supreme Court is one of the few apex courts which sits for almost the same number of days as India’s top court. In many of these jurisdictions, the apex courts only handle constitutional cases while the Indian Supreme Court not only acts as the highest constitutional court but also as the last court of appeals. This increases its workload manifold.

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