The primary role of the Supreme Court is to clarify substantial questions on law relating to the interpretation of the Constitution or otherwise of general importance. SC mainly hear 3 type of cases:
- disputes between States, and
- Public Interest Litigations
- appeal from the High Courts and Tribunals.
Over a period of time the role of the Supreme court has expanded, however this has led several issues.
- Backlog of cases leaves the court little time for its primal functions. ~60,000 cases backlog in Feb 2016
- Geographical proximity especially for litigants from South India. For example, of all the cases filed in Supreme Court highest numbers are from high courts of Northern states. Travelling to Delhi for every hearing is not possible, especially for poor, aged and disabled. Supreme Court can increase its sitting in various parts of the country, but it fears loss of supremacy and dilution of powers.
- Burden in the form of civil and criminal appeals.
- Court’s inability to devote itself substantially to the determination of important public questions.
- A substantial portion of four days of the country’s senior-most judges thus goes in just deciding which cases should join the appeals docket of the Supreme Court.
- Being tasked with the filtering process is a waste of the time, experience and wisdom of a Supreme Court judge. It prevents full consideration of the substantive cases before these judges
- Number of cases decided by constitutional benches has steadily declined from the time of the court’s inception. From 1950-1954-15% cases were handled by constitutional benches but in 2005-2009 -only 0.12% cases.
- Two judges benches are vested with enormous power of ruling on significant matters of public importance like section 66 A, Suresh Kumar Koushal vs Naz foundation in the section 377 ban.
- Larger Benches bring more judicial thinking to an issue, a balancing of different points of view and greater authority to the ruling of the court.
- Supreme court using the pliability of its power to grant special leave to often intervene in mundane disputes
- Appointment of judges:
- The average vacancy in the Supreme Court, high courts and lower courts is about 10, 30 and 20 per cent, respectively
- This is an issue for which both the judiciary and the government must take responsibility. Though there are 462 vacancies for high court judges, only 170 names have been recommended by the collegium.
- lack of transparency in the functioning of the system, the absence of a culture of openness and willingness to engage with civil society, academics and other stakeholders, and near absolute lack of quality statistics on the functioning of the system, the judiciary escapes accountability
Path breaking Judgements:
- Golaknath case (1967): Parliament’s prevented from taking away individual rights.
- Keshavananda Bharti vs State of Kerala (1973): ‘Basic Structure Doctrine’
- Minerva Mills v Union of India (1980): Supreme Court of India in 1980 strengthened the doctrine of the basic structure which was propounded earlier in the Keshavananda Bharti Case. Two changes which were made earlier by the 42nd Amendment Act were declared as null and void by the Supreme Court in this particular case.
- Mohd Ahmed Khan v Shah Bano Begum) (1985): Maintenance lawsuit sets precedent. Shah Bano won the right to get alimony from her husband.Most favoured it as a secular judgment but it also invoked a strong reaction from the Muslim community, which felt that the judgment was an encroachment on Muslim Sharia law
- SR Bommai v Union of India (1994) : Power of President’s Rule curtailed. Persecution of state governments stalled. This landmark case had major implications on Center-State relations. Post this case the Supreme Court clearly detailed the limitations within which Article 356 has to function.
- Expanded the ambit of article 21
- Vishaka case (1997) : enforced fundamental rights for working women under Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Constitution. This resulted in the introduction of Vishaka Guidelines. The judgment of August 1997 also provided basic definitions of sexual harassment at the workplace and provided guidelines to deal with it.
- Priyadarshini Mattoo case and Jessica lal case: Justice was provided to the victims despite high profile being accused
- Vodafone-Hutchison tax case : Vodafone’s name cleared in tax battle. Landmark decision on taxability of offshore transactions.
- Novartis-Glivec case: The Supreme Court rejected a patent plea by Swiss drugmaker Novartis AG for cancer drug Glivec, boosting the case for cheaper drugs for life-threatening diseases.
- NOTA Judgment (2013): The right to reject candidates formalised.
- Lily Thomas case effected much needed cleansing of legislative bodies
- Nirbhaya case -Judiciary spurred into action and laws were strengthened for sex offenders.
- Third gender acknowledged as citizens with rights.
- In shreya singha case Controversial section 66A of the Information Technology Act which allowed arrests for objectionable content posted on the internet was struck down as unconstitutional
What can be done:
- Establish national court of appeal:
- it can act as an intermediate forum between supreme court and various high courts.
- can relieve supreme court of the weight of hearing regular civil and criminal appeals allowing supreme court to only concentrate on questions of constitutional importance.
- Also regional branches of national court of appeal would allow greater access to litigants from remote areas of the country.
- But based on India’s constitutional structure there is little scope for establishing this court of appeal.
- Strengthening lower judiciary:
- greater vigour needed to choose judges
- socially conscious and meritorious if selected as judges at lower courts and then High court, supreme court ‘s role as court of appeal can be renounced altogether and reduce the burden to correct simple errors.
- Lokadalats need to be strengthened
- Creating specialised benches and greater involvement of experts like adhoc appointments of retired judges can be made.
- To reduce experimental special leave petitions
- E-court project of supreme court needs to be implemented soon to increase technological advancements for justice dispensation and improve accessibility
- Zonal courts:
- To create intermediate courts of appeal where senior judges can deal with these cases, giving them the time and consideration they deserve.
- These need to be located at different parts of the country, to handle appeals coming from courts in the four compass areas.
- They can be manned by senior judges retiring from the High Courts at 62 years. These courts of appeal will signal the full stop to civil and criminal litigation at large.
- According to 229th law commission report establishment benches of Supreme Court in 4 regions at New Delhi, Chennai/ Hyderabad, Kolkata and Mumbai. This model has worked very successfully in countries such as Italy, U.S, Denmark etc.