SLPs and Supreme Court: Honest activism causing delays in justice

29 May

The recent judgement of the Supreme Court in the case of Mathai @ Joby v. George and Anr. ( highlights how (probably) well-meaning activism can in the larger scheme of things, cause greater harm to the system if not backed by well thought out systemic changes. The judgement concerned the frivolous filing of Special Leave Petitions in the Supreme Court (It is a form of appeal which the Supreme Court can allow on a discretionary basis under Article 136 of the Constitution).  Presently, most of the work in the Supreme Court involves SLPs and therefore, this judgement becomes even more important.

The judges in this decision pointed out that though appeal under this provision is discretionary, the Constitution does not mention what sort of discretion should be exercised.  The Court then referred to a speech made by Mr KK Venugopal (Senior advocate and noted constitutional expert) on the state of the Supreme Court in India (For his speech, click here).  The judgment quotes him saying:

“an alarming state of affairshas developed in this Court because this Court has graduallyconverted itself into a mere Court of Appeal which has sought tocorrect every error which it finds in the judgments of the HighCourts of the country as well as the vast number of tribunals…He further observed that if the Apex Courtseeks to deal with all kinds of cases, it necessarily has toaccumulate vast arrears over a period of time which it will be impossible to clear in any foreseeable future. According to him,this is a self-inflicted injury, which is the cause of the malaisewhich has gradually eroded the confidence of the litigants in the Apex Court of the country…”

The most telling portion of the judgment is perhaps this:

“Mr. Venugopal has pointed out that in the year 1997 therewere only 19,000 pending cases in this Court but now, there areover 55,000 pending cases and in a few years time the pendencywill cross one lakh cases. In 2009 almost 70,000 cases were filedin this Court of which an overwhelming number were Special Leave Petitions under Article 136. At present all these cases have tobe heard orally, whereas the U.S. Supreme Court hears only about100 to 120 cases every year and the Canadian Supreme Court hearsonly 60 cases per year.”
In the USA, the Supreme Court reached its own conclusion as to how to deal with huge number of cases that will come before it – allow lower courts to be the final decision makers in all cases where the judgment affects only the two parties.  Then the Supreme Court is left only with cases which are of general importance to law.
In India on the other hand, well-meaning activism in the form of PILs and (perhaps) giving greater leeway to admission of SLPs has diluted the purpose of the Supreme Court.  In its ambition to provide justice for all, its aim of giving well considered judgements which consciously mould a legal system has perhaps been lost.
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