Chief Justice Moots Idea of Courts Working During Vacations

Given the high rate of case pendency, Justice T.S. Thakur suggested high courts could authorise the hearing and finalisation of cases during the summer holidays, if the counsel of both the sides were willing.

Supreme Court of India. Credit: Shome Basu

Supreme Court of India. Credit: Shome Basu

New Delhi: Nearly seven decades after independence, the system of long vacations for courts – a practice introduced by the British in India to allow their judges ample time to travel home and back –  continues. Interestingly, the courts are unaware of how and when the system actually began.

The issue was recently flagged by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur in Lucknow, who suggested the two-month vacation be used to hear and finalise some cases. “I would suggest that if the counsel of both parties are willing, then I would request the Chief Justice of the high courts to allow such hearings during the summer holidays and would also request judges to hear and finalise these cases,” he said.

The matter was also brought into the spotlight not too long ago with the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) upholding a response to an RTI application by the Supreme Court that there was no authentic information or record available about the practice of long vacations, especially during the summers.

RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, who had filed the petition seeking details of how the vacation system came to be, said while the judicial functioning of Supreme Court is for a limited number of days, its registry works like government-offices during long court-vacations. While the Supreme Court has just 193 working days a year for its judicial functioning, the high courts function for 210 days and trial courts for 245 days.

Incidentally, the CIC has not reverted on the RTI petition to the Union Ministry of Law & Justice to trace the origin of long court vacations.

Questioning the logic behind the continuation of this “costly facility” even in free India, Agarwal suggested that instead of closing work at courts altogether through long vacations, judges can be given vacations by rotation, as is the case with professors in medical colleges under the Delhi government.

Previous attempts at reform

This is not the first time that the need has been felt to utilise court holidays better in order to reduce case pendency. A Law Commission recommendation to scrap long court vacations has been continuously ignored, and Agarwal suggests the law ministry adhere to this and introduce a common pattern of holidays for all courts.

“The working of a regular five-member bench of the Supreme Court for hearing on validity of National Judicial Accountability Commission from June 8, 2015 during summer vacations establishes that courts can very well function without long vacations,” he said.

The 230th Law Commission of India Report of Judicial Reforms had recommended that the vacation period of all courts – including the Supreme Court – be shortened by 10 to 15 days.

It had also called for the re-evaluation of the time allotted for court holidays on account of there being a high rate of pendency of cases and the tendency among lawyers to seek adjournments on flimsy grounds.

The Law Commission had also suggested that the attendance of judges at international conferences be allowed in turns. It had also observed that even if the working hours were extended by half an hour, it would reduce the pendency of cases significantly.

In May 2014, then Chief Justice of India R.M. Lodha had suggested doing away with long vacations and mooted the idea of all courts functioning 365 days a year. This, he believed, would be a major step towards reducing the backlog of pending cases, which stood at a mammoth two crore.

Justice Lodha had even suggested having 10 bench sittings every day instead of the 14 to 15 bench sittings for 193 days in a year, in an attempt to improve the delivery of justice. By a back-of-the-hand calculation, this would have raised the number of sittings by 26% a year.

However, Ashok Kumar Pandey, the joint secretary of the Bar Council of India (BCI), had confirmed that no such committee was formed to look into the issue of increasing the number of working days.

Although Justice Lodha had even suggested to Biri Singh Sinsinwar, the then chairman of the BCI, to take feedback from all stakeholders on keeping courts open all year round, the idea did not move forward. “Justice Lodha himself retired after a few months and due to differences of opinion among judges the proposal never came to us,” said Sinsinwar in conversation to The Wire.

The Rajasthan-based senior advocate, whose term as BCI chairman ended soon after Justice Lodha’s tenure as chief justice, insisted that “ultimately it was left to the Supreme Court and the high courts to devise their own ways of improving working within the existing set up.”

“The issue did not even reach the stage of formation of a committee to discuss the matter. It was also not a practical solution,” he said.

Apparently, no one bothered to even look into the suggestion of the former chief justice, who had suggested that his proposal would not lead to any increase in the number of working days or working hours of any of the judges. All they were required to do was tell those managing court sittings when they would like to avail their vacations, which would have provided an easy answer to the problem of pendency.