The Constitution of India is peculiar in the sense that it goes beyond ordinary Constitutions in securing the rights of the citizens. Article 39A, for instance, casts a positive obligation upon the State, apart from providing free legal aid, to “secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on a basis of equal opportunity.”
But how do we achieve this goal of a legal system that delivers justice on the basis of equal opportunity, in a vast country like India, when the only seat of the highest Court of Appeal, that is, the Supreme Court is located only in the National Capital.
Just image, for a dispute arising in say Tawang, goes upto the Supreme Court, the litigant would have to travel around 2,288 km to Delhi multiple times. This makes the justice-delivery system costly and even unaffordable for many of those living in the far-flung, remote areas of the country.
Initially, the apex court was envisaged as a Constitutional Court that decides substantial questions of law involving the interpretation of the Constitution, and not so much as a Court of Appeal. In fact, in its early years, the Supreme Court even used to hear 70-80 such matters every year through Constitution Benches of five or more Judges.
However, the role of the Supreme Court has undergone a sea change now. It hears only 10-20 such cases involving substantial questions of law involving Constitutional interpretation. On the other hand, it now not only hears a number of appeals, but also Review Petitions and Curative Petitions that follow.
It is very much possible that the Constitution provided for only one seat in Delhi as the Supreme Court was initially envisaged to be a largely Constitutional Court. It would have been expected that appeals get largely restricted to the High Courts, however that is clearly not the case.
The sharp change in the role of the apex court has not only led to litigants getting compelled to travel to Delhi from different corners of the country, but has also led to the problem of arrears of cases before the top court. Presently, 65,000 matters are pending for disposal before the Supreme Court.
In fact, the Supreme Court has a very wide jurisdiction. It has the exclusive jurisdiction to decide disputes involving the inter-governmental disputes (involving the Centre and states), citizens can approach it directly in case of breach of Fundamental Rights and with the advent of Public Interest Litigation (PIL), a number of matters involving larger public interest routinely come up before it.
The solution to this issue lies in the Constitution itself. Article 130 provides, “The Supreme Court shall sit in Delhi or in such other place or places, as the Chief Justice of India may, with the approval of the President, from time to time, appoint.” Therefore, the CJI, with the approval of the President, can provide for multiple places where the Supreme Court can hear matters.
This in effect means that while the Principal seat of the Supreme Court can be Delhi, benches can be constituted in other parts of the country, in order to tackle pendency and also to ensure that ordinary citizens from far flung corners are able to avail affordable justice.
Last year, even Vice President Venkaiah Naidu had made a similar suggestion that the apex court institute four regional Benches in order to tackle backlog of cases, and also to ensure speedy justice.
But this was not the first time such a suggestion was made. The Standing Committees of Parliament had in 2004, 2005 and 2006 recommended that Benches of the Supreme Court be set up in other places.
Such a suggestion had come into light for the first time more than 3 decades ago in 1984, when the 95th Law Commission Report under Justice K K Mathew had recommended, “the Supreme Court of India should consist of two Divisions, namely (a) Constitutional Division, and (b) Legal Division.”
As is clear from the bifurcation, the Constitution Division would hear only maters involving matters related to the Constitutional law, while the Legal Division would hear all other matters. The bifurcation thus recognised the evolution of the Supreme Court from a largely Constitutional Court to the highest Court of Appeal, alongwith its original purpose.
Thereafter, the 125th Law Commission Report had reiterated the recommendations of the 95th Law Commission report in the year 1988 to bifurcate the Supreme Court into two divisions.
A couple of decades later, the 229th Law Commission Report too had suggested a Constitution Bench to be set up in Delhi to deal with Constitutional and similar matters. Apart from the Constitution Bench, it suggested setting up of four cassation benches in the Northern region/zone at Delhi, the Southern region/zone at Chennai/Hyderabad, the Eastern region/zone at Kolkata and the Western region/zone at Mumbai.
As per the Report, the cassation benches were supposed to deal with appellate matters arising out of the High Court verdicts.
It was in the year 2015 that the Supreme Court had for the last time declined such suggestions. The then Chief Justice of India, HL Dattu had said, “We will not open any branch of Supreme Court at any other place.”
It is relevant to mention here that today many countries around the world have the system of cassation benches. Within India, several High Courts in the larger and more populous states have a system of multiple benches.
In Rajasthan, the Principal seat of the High Court is located in Jodhpur but there is also a separate bench at Jaipur. In Uttar Pradesh, the Principal seat is situated in Prayagraj (Allahabad High Court) but there is a High Court bench at Lucknow too.
The case of the Madhya Pradesh High Court is particularly peculiar. The principal seat is in Jabalpur, and there are two other benches at Indore and Gwalior.
When large states need multiple benches because of the expenses involved in travelling to a particular corner of the state and the backlog of cases, how can a single Seat of the Supreme Court cater to the entire country, which is spread over a size of 3.287 million km² and consists of a huge population of over 130 crore.
Speedy and affordable justice is not just a social necessity, but also a constitutional obligation. Setting up Cassation benches to deal with appellate matters and a Constitution Bench in Delhi to deal with Constitutional and allied matters, could very well prove to be a major judicial reform that brings us closer to the goal of speedy and effective justice.