NEWS Access to the Supreme Court has been made easier with virtual hearings, but more needs to be done.
- While the pandemic curtailing lockdown limited people’s movements, it opened new vistas for litigants and lawyers across India to approach, through technology, the Supreme court with relative ease.
- Recently, there have been demands for a return to physical hearings by the Bar in Delhi but there are calls too, for virtual access to the Supreme Court to continue.
CONSTITUTIONAL POWER OF CJI TO HLD SITTINGS OF SUPREME COURT
- At the time the Constitution was being debated by the Constituent Assembly, geographical access to the Supreme Court was flagged as a concern.
- B.R. Ambedkar-led Drafting Committee was nevertheless of the view that the Court must have a specified place of sitting and that litigants should “know where to go and whom to approach”.
- Accordingly, in recognition of the same, the Constitution empowered the Chief Justice of India to hold sittings of the Supreme Court through Circuit Benches in places other than Delhi as well.
- However, despite an increasing caseload and repeated pleas by litigants and governments, successive Chief Justices have refused to invoke this constitutional power.
- Also, it has been recommended by more than one Law Commission and Parliamentary Committee to set up the Circuit Benches of the Supreme Court around the country.
GEOGRAPHICAL CONSTRAINTS IN REACHING SC
- In India, given the unified, single-pyramidal structure of the judicial system, all types of cases can potentially make their way to the Supreme Court, irrespective of the place or forum of the original institution.
- According to a report by the Centre for Policy Research, a disproportionately high number of cases filed in the Supreme Court originated in High Courts closer to Delhi.
- For instance, cases from States like West Bengal, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, which collectively account for around a fifth of India’s total population, contribute to less than 10% of the court’s docket.
- On the other hand, almost 18% of all cases in the Supreme Court originate from Punjab and Haryana, with less than 5% of the total population share.
- Geographical constraints have also meant that appearing before the Supreme Court has inescapably become the domain of a select few lawyers in and around Delhi.
PANDEMIC HAS HELPED IN INCREASING THE REACH
- The pandemic, although for different reasons, has compelled the Supreme Court to attempt to overcome physical constraints in an effort to increase access, albeit virtually.
- Over the past year, with virtual hearings, was seen as the exclusive domain of a limited number of lawyers in Delhi.
- But now, virtual hearings have opened up to advocates from all over India, most of whom could only ever have dreamt of addressing the Supreme Court in their lifetimes.
- Litigants now have the option to engage a local lawyer of their own choice and convenience, including the same lawyer who argued their case before the lower court.
- Indeed, virtual hearings may not be the perfect alternative, but such imperfections must be preferred over a denial of the right to access justice itself.
It is only when each person in India is provided unhindered access to its corridors can the Supreme Court be said to have fulfilled its constitutional promise. Nonetheless, till the judiciary acts on such proposals, virtual hearings should be allowed to continue, if not as a matter of right, then at least as a matter of just and equitable policy.