Line-up for justice

There are two queues before the courts and the ‘other’ one moves faster

M J Antony / New Delhi December 23, 2009, 0:47 IST in The Business Standard

The lengthy arguments in the most contested corporate family battle between the two Ambani brothers, Mukesh and Anil, ended last week in the Supreme Court, and now the speculation is over the date of the judgment.

The Supreme Court does not set any deadline for delivering its judgments, though it has chastised the high courts for delaying verdicts unreasonably, sometimes for years. Some high courts have taken the rebuke seriously and now indicate on top of their judgments the date when the arguments closed and when the decision was pronounced. The gap is now only a few days or weeks.

But the Supreme Court takes excruciatingly more time now to deliver its judgments compared to the high courts. This, despite statutory rules setting deadlines and a recent Law Commission recommendation to speed up delivery of judgments.

For instance, a bench headed by the chief justice reserved its judgment in the Bondu Ramaswamy vs Bangalore Development Authority case on March 23, 2007. It involved the right of hundreds of persons whose land was being acquired. They had raised several issues of contemporaneous significance. However, they have been waiting for nearly two years now for the final decision.

The fate of the much-awaited company law tribunal depends upon the decision of a five-judge bench headed by the chief justice in the R Gandhi vs Union of India case. The arguments closed in January this year. Similarly, another of his Constitution bench reserved its judgment in the Economic Transport Organisation vs Charan Spinning Mills case on December 3 last year. But no decision has been taken so far. There are several such decisions hanging fire.

Very often, judgments are delivered just a few days before one of the judges on the bench retires. If it is not done, the whole case will have to be reheard. While scurrying for the notes, some judges forget to consult their colleagues who record their resentment in their judgments. In the case of Kesavananda Bharati, one judge wrote a long preface to his judgment lamenting shortage of time to consider the issues (argued for six months before a 13-judge bench) and lack of consultation among the brethren.

The blame game was repeated when the famous Minerva Mills case was decided in great haste as one judge was retiring. Again, in a criminal case involving the then political heavyweight, Nandini Satpathy, a five-judge bench delivered a hurried judgment; but one of them recorded that he received a draft only at 4 pm the day before and, therefore, “I do not have time to write a detailed judgment.” These are only some recorded instances of admitted failure of judicial collectivity.

Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan is scheduled to retire in May next year. Therefore, all his judgments should come before that. If he delivers the judgments chronologically, the case of the small landholders of Karnataka should come first. Then there are several others like the company law tribunal case. If the court breaks the chronological order to deliver the judgment in the Reliance case first, people will raise questions about the “expedition” in corporate cases.

Two decades ago, there was a furore over the court expediting cases where the rich and the powerful were involved. Bail was granted to a top industrialist at a judge’s residence at midnight when the then chief justice was away. The debenture issue of a top company was also decided with extraordinary urgency at a judge’s residence. The bail matter of actor Sanjay Dutt was referred to a Constitution bench in the absence of the chief justice and was decided at break-neck speed.

In one judgment, in the case of D Navinchandra vs Union of India (1987), the then chief justice wrote: “My conscience protests to me that when thousands of remediless wrongs await in the queue for this court’s intervention and solution for justice, petitions at the behest of diamond exporters and dry fruit exporters where large sums are involved should be admitted and disposed of by this court at such quick speed.”

Respected late jurist HM Seervai noted several such cases and pleaded in an essay “to make sure that people do not feel that there is a short and swift road to justice for the wealthy, the powerful and the well-connected, and another long, weary and heart-breaking road to justice for others.”

The Supreme Court has told the high courts that if they don’t deliver judgments for a long time, the cases should be reheard. It said in the case, Anil Rai vs State of Bihar (2001): “The judges themselves normally forget the details of the facts and niceties of the legal points advanced. Sometimes the interval is so long that the judges forget even the fact that such a case is pending with them. Though this is an unpleasant fact, it is a stark reality.”

Ironically, the comments read true of the Supreme Court itself.


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