Every year, as the summer commences, there seems to be a direct correlation between the temperature in Delhi and turning up the heat on the summer vacations of the Supreme Court and the High Courts across the country. The pendency before courts gets highlighted and questions are asked on whether such a long break is necessary and will not the shrinking of court holidays help reduce case pendency. Figures relating to backlogs are brought out and it appears as if an attempt is made to give the entire judiciary a guilt trip for taking time-off. The outside world is not able to understand what justifies the Supreme Court taking 45 days off in the summer and the Delhi High Court closing down for 30 days in June.
Here are some insights on what the days look like for the 193 days the Supreme Court, the 210 days the High Courts and the 245 days the Trial Courts function.
On an average day, there are between 55-90 cases listed before each court. Granted some matters are listed only for miscellaneous applications and completion of pleadings, but regardless, Judges have to read the files and scrutinize previous orders to ensure they don’t inadvertently undo a prior ruling. Courts sit till between 4:30-5 pm everyday post which orders for that day are reviewed and signed and in some cases judgments dictated immediately. Consequently, reading for the next day usually commences very late in the night. In between, there may be administrative responsibilities that Judges have to discharge, like reviewing confidential reports of subordinate Judges. The week almost follows a regular pattern and weekends are usually spent with Judges undertaking personal legal research to write other pending judgments. Judges, and lawyers alike, work almost 7 days. Is not an extended break justified!
Some years ago, the Law Commission of India suggested reduction of Court holidays and extending the daily time of Court functioning. Subsequently, concurrent Chief Justices of India have tried to reduce the summer break of the Supreme Court. Consequently, in 2013, Order 2 of the Supreme Court Rules were amended to bring down the original period of 10 weeks to 7 weeks, which is currently followed. But it should be noted that even during vacation months, the Registry of the Supreme Court functions and accepts fresh matters. Vacation benches assemble both in the Supreme Court and in High Courts to deal with urgent matters and Judges take turns to hold court. Speak to any Judge and they will tell you, they need the extended break to catch-up on reading judgments from across the country, jurisprudence from across the world, write pending judgments, spend time with their neglected families and otherwise just to recoup energies!
From a technical perspective, Article 125 of the Constitution, in respect of Supreme Court Judges, and Article 221(2) in respect of Judges of the High Courts, state that every Judge is entitled to certain privileges and rights in respect of leave of absence which may be determined or under law made by Parliament. The proviso to the said Articles clarifies that, neither the privileges nor the allowance of a Judge nor his/her rights in respect of leave of absence shall be varied to his/her disadvantage after their appointment.
Consequently, the Parliament is empowered to change the privileges, allowances and leave of a Judge, but this would not affect Judges who are appointed before the change is made. Hence, once a Judge is appointed, her rights, in terms of her appointment cannot be changed even by parliament, unless the Constitution is amended.
None of this takes away from the fact that there is an enormous back-log and every extra day/hour will help. But that’s not the only solution. Increasing judicial strength is important. But improving the judicial infrastructure and assisting Judges with better resources will go a long way in expediting judicial decision making. It’s often reported that we spend less that 0.5% of our GDP on our judiciary. That’s disappointing, to say the least.
Notably, roles and responsibilities of different wings of government functioning vary and hence it would be unfair to draw comparison with the legislature. But Parliament usually assembles for less than 100 days in most years and doesn’t always pass all pending bills. Invariably, all discussions about Parliament disruption take a political turn and fingers get pointed between the ruling party and the opposition. However, the days of Parliament functioning aren’t increased and it’s somewhat understandable since our parliamentarians spend a lot of time in their constituencies and on field work. One should take note that our Judges too need to attend conferences and other events that will help shape the jurisprudence in our country. It’s the judiciary’s equivalent of field work.
Spend a day in court and one will observe that Judges perform an unenviable job. In the current environment of transparency they are subject to close scrutiny. Equally, recognizing the might of their pen, they are compelled to tread with caution. Hence, no matter how comfortable those big red velvet chairs appear to the outside world, sitting in them is not an easy task.
Satvik Varma is a Harvard educated lawyer practicing in New Delhi. The son of a former Judge, he yearns for his annual summer break & other Court holidays.