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It is Time to Revamp the Structure of the Supreme Court

Context:

The Supreme Court of India currently faces a backlog of 79,813 cases before its 34 judges, prompting calls for structural changes. Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud also recently expressed the intention to establish diverse Constitution Benches, indicating a potential shift in the court’s structure.

Relevance:

GS2-

  • Separation of Powers between various organs Dispute Redressal Mechanisms and Institutions.
  • Structure, Organization and Functioning of the Executive and the Judiciary

Mains Question:

It is time to revamp the structure of the Supreme Court in order to safeguard a citizen’s fundamental right to access it. Discuss. (15 marks, 250 words).

Evolution of the Supreme Court:

  • During the colonial era, there were three Supreme Courts in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. The Indian High Courts Act of 1861 replaced these with High Courts for distinct regions.
  • The Government of India Act, 1935, established the Federal Court of India as an appellate body for the Privy Council and High Courts.
  • India adopted the Constitution in 1949, and the Supreme Court, as it stands today, was inaugurated on January 28, 1950, under Article 124 of the Constitution, just two days after India became an independent democratic republic. Its establishment in Delhi was facilitated by Article 130.
  • The inaugural Supreme Court comprised eight judges, including the Chief Justice. However, as the caseload increased and backlogs grew, Parliament progressively raised the number of judges: from eight in 1950 to 11 in 1956, 14 in 1960, 18 in 1978, 26 in 1986, 31 in 2009, and finally, 34 in 2019.

Working of the Supreme Court:

  • The Supreme Court of India operates within three constitutional jurisdictions: original, appellate, and advisory.
  • It functions both as a Constitutional Court and a Court of Appeal, with benches of different sizes determined by the Registry under the Chief Justice of India’s (CJI) guidance.

Overburdened Judiciary:

  • An overburdened judicial system is reflected in the current functioning of the Supreme Court, which issues approximately 8-10 decisions annually through Constitution Benches comprising five or more judges.
  • The court primarily serves as an appellate body, with merely four out of the 1,263 decisions issued in 2022 coming from a Constitution Bench.
  • Its jurisdiction encompasses cases between the Center and the States, inter-state disputes, civil and criminal appeals, and the provision of legal and factual advice to the President.
  • Any individual can promptly approach the Supreme Court if they believe their fundamental rights have been violated.

Structural Changes Needed:

Constitution Benches:

About:

The CJI, serving as the Master of the Roster, directs the composition of benches. Constitution Benches, typically consisting of five, seven, or nine judges, address specific constitutional law issues as outlined in Article 145(3) of the Constitution, which mandates a minimum of five judges for cases involving substantial constitutional interpretations or referrals under Article 143 related to the President’s consultation power.

Suggestions to Enhance the Working of Constitution Benches:

  • Discussion on the creation of a distinct Constitution Bench emerged in March 1984 when the Tenth Law Commission of India suggested a division of the Supreme Court into two segments: the Constitutional Division and the Legal Division.
  • According to the proposal, only matters concerning constitutional law would be presented to the envisioned Constitutional Division.
  • Echoing this sentiment, the Eleventh Law Commission reiterated in 1988 that dividing the Supreme Court would enhance the accessibility of justice and significantly reduce litigants’ fees.
  • The rationale behind this proposal stemmed from the observation that a substantial portion of appeals in the Supreme Court originated from High Courts in closer proximity.

National Court of Appeal:

  • Notably, appeals from the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Allahabad High Court, and Delhi High Court constituted a significant portion, while courts situated farther from the apex court had fewer appeals, influenced by challenges in accessibility and associated costs.
  • An earlier case, Bihar Legal Support Society v. Chief Justice of India (1986), expressed the view that establishing a National Court of Appeal would be “desirable.”
  • Such a court could entertain special leave petitions, enabling the Supreme Court to focus exclusively on constitutional and public law-related issues.

Regional Benches:

  • To enhance the accessibility of the Court, the 229th Law Commission Report in 2009 suggested the establishment of four regional benches in Delhi, Chennai or Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
  • These regional benches, with six judges each, were recommended to handle non-constitutional matters, redistributing the backlog of such cases.
  • Meanwhile, a Constitution Bench in New Delhi would consistently address constitutional issues. This approach aimed to enable the Supreme Court to address constitutional matters and other nationally significant cases on a day-to-day basis.

Division Benches:

While Division Benches (two judges) or full Benches (three judges) usually handle a variety of cases, ranging from film restrictions to allegations of police commissioner misconduct, the Supreme Court’s broad jurisdiction has led to the consideration of trivial public interest litigations. Examples include requests to delete passages from the Quran or remove secularism from the Constitution’s Preamble.

Conclusion:

Currently under consideration by a Constitution Bench in the case of V. Vasanthkumar v. H.C. Bhatia, these issues prompt a reflection on measures to safeguard a citizen’s fundamental right to access the Supreme Court. With the guidance of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), there is an opportunity to address this structural gap by designating certain appeal benches of the court as regional benches.


February 2024
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