By Jayant Muralidharan
On the occasion of the launch of his book “Listening, Learning and Leading”, Vice President Venkaiah Naidu batted for regional benches of the Supreme Court in at least four major cities. Referring to the recommendation of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice to have separate benches in different regions, Naidu said “I think it is high time we had more benches. In a country as vast as India, litigants have to travel long distances and spend a huge amount of money and energy.” Interestingly, this matter along with the idea of a National Court of Appeal is also being heard by the Supreme Court in V Vasanth Kumar vs H C Bhatia where the matter was referred to the Constitution Bench. This idea of regional benches features quite often in discussions relating to the ease of access to justice and has been supported by the Law Commission of India in its various reports and by the government on various occasions.
The common proposal is that these regional benches should be situated in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata so that easy access could be secured for all regions throughout the country. However, this proposal has been rejected by the Supreme Court on multiple occasions at its Full Court Meetings, leading to resolutions in 1999, 2001, 2004, 2006 and 2010. This is primarily because of the primacy given to the judiciary in these matters. Seat of the Supreme Court is provided for in Article 130 of the Constitution. According to it, the Supreme Court may sit at place(s) other than Delhi on the order of the Chief Justice of India with the prior approval of the President of India. Therefore, permission from the judiciary is required before the government can actualise the move. While averaging 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2011, the Delhi High Court had the most elevated recurrence of cases disposed of by it, and matters appealed to the Supreme Court were to the extent of 9.3 per cent. The high courts of Uttarakhand and Punjab figure close and have had an appeal rate to the Supreme Court of more than 5 per cent. All other high courts, other than Himachal Pradesh (3.2 per cent) and Bombay (3.0 per cent), had an appeal rate of under 3 per cent.
Madras had an appeal rate of only 1.1 per cent and Odisha less than 1 per cent. The four high courts with the highest appeal rates in 2011 were, likewise, the four nearest to the Supreme Court. These high courts generated 34.1 per cent of the appeals to the Supreme Court yet catered to just 7.2 per cent of the aggregate population. Hence, it can be construed that the removal of these four high courts from the calculation would lead to the conclusion that the correlation between appeal rate and distance from the Supreme Court is practically non-existent. Thus, it can be easily interpreted that there is a substantial decrease in the percentage of appeals with distance from Delhi. Therefore, the entire concept of wide access to justice is only to cater to the needs of a limited few, restricted to people close to Delhi. This is because the greater the distance from Delhi, the higher the cost of litigation. Due to this, many potential litigants cannot afford the cost of going to the Supreme Court. That adversely affects people coming from far-flung places and remote areas in the country – like Tamil Nadu in the South, Gujarat in the West and Assam and other states in the East.
Given the typical practice of bringing one’s own lawyer who has handled the matter in the high court to the Supreme Court, the expense increases manifold. In such a scenario, adjournments become prohibitively costly. However, adjournments are a recurring phenomenon and further multiply the cost for the litigant. The economic condition at the micro-level in India has nothing much to boast about. In 2012, the government stated that 21.9 per cent of the population is below the official poverty line. Moreover, taking into consideration the international standard, 32.7 per cent of Indians are extremely poor, with an average income of less than $1.90 per day. In such a situation, the exclusive seat of the Supreme Court in Delhi makes justice so expensive that the top court is out of reach for most litigants. As a result, there is an inherent denial of the right of access to justice which results in the infringement of the fundamental rights of a potential litigant. When contrasted with the ideals of the Constitution, which guarantees substantive aspects of justice and not mere formal rights, the exclusive seat of the Supreme Court in Delhi falls foul of the very Constitution it is meant to protect. One should not be denied the right of access to the Supreme Court merely because one cannot afford it. Substantive notions of justice demand that the Supreme Court should be accessible to everyone, whether he is the richest person in the country or a middle-class person or the poorest. Thus, it is essential to provide the right of access to justice, guaranteed as a fundamental right to all citizens, by ensuring that the additional transaction cost of litigation is minimal. To ensure this, the establishment of regional benches of the Supreme Court must be given a serious thought. Article 130 of the Constitution, which provides for the seat of the Supreme Court, makes it necessary for the government to necessarily have the consensus of the Chief Justice of India. Therefore, the government must work with the CJI to ensure that the judiciary and the executive join hands to truly secure the cherished right of access to justice which is enshrined in our Constitution. (INAV)