Why vacations are crucial for top court
The Supreme Court's breaks have triggered criticisms of pendency. But judges often use vacations for research, reflection and to catch up on verdict writing.
The Supreme Court (SC) opens after a six-week summer vacation on July 3. The break has thrown up some criticism, even scorn, as has been the norm in recent years. Many have ridiculed the practice by drawing a parallel with school vacations; others have blamed what they see as unnecessary holidays for adding to the pendency in cases. Last December, then Union law minister Kiren Rijiju told the Rajya Sabha that there was a feeling among the people that the long vacation was not convenient for justice-seekers.
The highest court of the land occupies a pivotal position in the world’s largest democracy. Close scrutiny of its functioning is natural. But the criticism must be evaluated 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.
The first benchmark warrants an understanding of judicial history. When SC came into being on January 28, 1950 -- two days after the country became a republic – it had six judges. The Constitution originally envisaged an SC with a Chief Justice of India (CJI) and seven judges, leaving it to Parliament to increase this number. In the early years, all judges sat together to hear cases. With an increase in the caseload, Parliament increased the number of judges to 11 in 1956, 14 in 1960, 18 in 1978, 26 in 1986, 31 in 2009 and 34 in 2019 – the current strength.
But the rise in the volume of cases far outstripped this increase. In 1950, SC had 1,215 cases and decided 525 of them, averaging about 75 cases per judge. In 2014, as many as 89,164 cases were filed and the court disposed of 92,722, averaging at least 3,000 cases per judge. 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. It indicates that pendency is largely a function of this lopsided trend.
This leads us to the second factor – writing judgments. SC judges sit in courts from 10 am to 4 pm for five days a week. More time goes into preparing case files that run into thousands of pages for each of the 150-odd cases taken up every week. Orders dictated during the day need to be examined, corrected and signed in the evening, both before and after court hours, before the judges start reading case briefs for the next day. Hence, very little time is left to examine intricate questions of law and the Constitution, a work that is exhaustive and needs sifting through delicate interpretations of the law. This can only be done when the highest court is on vacation. It’s also during the break when the judges get enough time to participate in conferences, and engage in insightful discussions and knowledge-sharing to gain new perspectives and broaden their horizons.
In 2022, the SC delivered 44 judgments the day it reopened after the summer break. These cases covered myriad subjects, ranging from extradition agreements to domestic laws, from criminal appeals to civil disputes, and from banking matters to cases of contempt of court. In that month alone, the court pronounced as many as 118 judgments. Clearly, the judges utilised the vacation for research, reflection and to catch up on verdict writing that could not be done due to a deluge of routine work and daily orders.
Moreover, during the break, the SC 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 two vacation benches hearing at least 50 cases every day, ensuring that the wheels of justice don’t come to a grinding halt.
Is the SC’s weeks-long break out of sync with the rest of the world? The third test is instructive here. The SC sits for an average of 200 days every year, the US SC 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 SC sits for about 145 days in a year. The UK SC 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 SC not only acts as the highest constitutional court but also as the highest court of appeals. This increases its workload manifold.
The controversy over judicial vacations is not new, and has been tackled by several panels. Set up by the Union government, the Committee on Reforms of Criminal Justice System recommended in 2003 that SC’s working days be increased from 185 to 206 days by reducing the vacation by three weeks. At the same time, the committee underlined the “gross inadequacy of judges to cope with the enormous pendency and new inflow of cases”.
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 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 last count in 2022, this number stood at 21.
The three-pronged test shows that vacations serve a crucial function in the functioning of the top court, by allowing judges the time and flexibility needed to author critical judgments on issues that shape our democracy and everyday life. Pendency of cases remains a cause for concern but any solution will need to take a holistic view of the true nature and ambit of duties performed by a judge, and focus on pressing needs such as augmenting infrastructure, increasing the SC’s sanctioned strength, even a relook at the retirement age.
The views expressed are personal