At the best of times, the job of a constitutional court judge is largely a thankless one. There has been an exponential explosion in the litigation cases and we simply don’t have enough judges. For quite a while, there have been demands from the judiciary itself to appoint specialist court managers. With the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, cases have backed up in courts like never before. The case for court managers should be revisited now.
Judgments which had been reserved but not delivered have piled up. No doubt the fact that courts cannot function as normal during the pandemic but by remote control is not helping the situation.
Going through the portals of the Madras High Court, I came across a circular from 2014 vintage, issued by then chief justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul (now with the Supreme Court). In that circular, court officers before the principal bench in Chennai and Madurai were directed to mention the dates on which orders were reserved and the dates of their pronouncement. We are still awaiting the verdicts in those cases.
In a move to deal with these delays, then Supreme Court judges KT Thomas and RP Sethi had said in Anil Rai vs State of Bihar (2001), that chief justices of all high courts could direct their registry to print the two crucial dates on the judgements. The other remedial measures suggested by the court included a directive by the chief justices to make it mandatory for the court officers to furnish them a monthly list of cases in which judgements were not pronounced within a month from the date on which they were reserved.
The order said, “The Chief Justice may also see the desirability of circulating among the judges of the High Court for their information the state of such cases in which judgements have not been pronounced, within six weeks from the date of conclusion of arguments. Such communication should be conveyed as confidential and in a sealed cover. If the judges do not pronounce judgement even after three months, the parties in the case could be permitted to file an application with a prayer for an early order, and such an application should be listed before the judges within two days. If the judgement, for any reason, is not pronounced within six months, any of the parties shall be entitled to move an application before the Chief Justice with a prayer to withdraw the case and make it over to any other Bench for fresh arguments. It is open to the Chief Justice to grant the prayer or pass any other order as he deems fit.”
The delays are not merely an issue of logistics. The present Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, AP Sahi, has issued a circular making available “personal staff” to the judges at all times. And papers which may be logically within the heritage building are available for transit, if required. This means there will be ready access to the relevant papers and personal assistance in the case of video conferencing. The virus may have delayed things, but the problem will not go away with the end of the pandemic.
In July, 2019, then Chief Justice Vijaya Tahilramani, had said that the E-Courts website and National Judicial Data Grid are the most accessed websites and that the proceedings of all cases are being uploaded on this. She indicated that parties concerned were sending petitions/letters over the delay in pronouncement of orders, after reserving the cases. Hence she felt that it was expedient to proceed with the cases without any delay. When causes are reserved for judgments/orders, she felt that the same has to be pronounced at the earliest by keeping in mind the directions of the Supreme Court.
We have seen how the UP chief minister Yogi Adityanath has by an ordinance suspended 35 labour legislations for three calendar years to boost the economy. It has been a matter of debate among advisors to policymakers that in the face of inordinate judicial delays and the institution’s inability to clear the backlog of reserved judgments, it may be required for the Centre or state to take the ordinance route to bring closure to some litigations in which national interest may be at stake. This does not augur well for the judiciary. It is better for the judiciary to set its own house in order when it comes to delays and use the technology that is available to it today to speed things along.
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan is an advocate in the Madras High Court
The views expressed are personal