Bar Speaks: Will more circuit & regional Supreme Court benches improve Access to Justice?

  • Sanya Talwar
  • 07:11 PM, 12 Sep 2021

Recently, Justice N Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court opined that there should be regional benches or circuit benches of the Supreme Court outside Delhi. He also added urged the Central government to consider constituting circuit benches or permanent benches of all tribunals in New Delhi, as well as the Bar Council of India, in each regional zone "for the benefit of common man, at the earliest."

At Lawbeat, we consider discourse an important aspect of Legal Journalism which includes inculcating a plethora of opinions and voices from across the board in its ambit to understand various nuances of an issue. This inclusivity of opinions is what Lawbeat strives for, day in and day out. Indeed, discourse is the only way forward for change-making.
Therefore, our team reached out to a cross-section of Former Judges, Senior Lawyers & Lawyers from across the country to get their views on whether more than one bench of the Supreme Court in the form of regional benches or circuit benches will have a positive effect on Access to Justice.

Before we moved towards taking valuable inputs of members of the bar and judiciary, we also conducted a poll on our twitter handle in order to engage our 11,000 followers within discourse.
 

Twitter-Poll-More-Than-One-SC-Bench-Access-To-Justice

What the Legal Fraternity had to say:

"Geographical proximity important aspect of access to justice; Supreme Court Delhi-centric"

It was pointed out by Senior Advocate N.L. Rajah (Madras High Court) that Justice Kirubakaran's assertions on the aspect of having more than one bench of the Supreme Court are absolutely correct as "geographic proximity to the courts of justice is indeed a very important aspect of Access of Justice". 

The idea projected by Justice N Kirubakaran of having more than one SC benches is desirable resonated with many members of the fraternity.

Senior Advocate Murari Raghavan (Madras High Court) pointed out that many people who want to pursue the justice system are often unable to do so, primarily because approaching Top Court comes with many uncertainties for the common man.
  
"Would fully agree with the statement on difficulty in accessing justice. For this purpose I am taking the example of a common man who has been fighting a battle at various levels which could and who believes justice will be that justice will be ultimately got in the SC. He has no clue on the best way to get this going whom to contact and ultimately how much it will cost him. More often than not, he chooses not to pursue this because of the uncertainties involved," said Murari.

Senior Advocate R.S. Bains (Punjab & Haryana High Court) was of the view that the setting up of circuit and/or regional benches for the Supreme Court should be done as Supreme Court had become very Delhi-centric, and India is very diverse.

"So if you have a North-East bench, a South bench, a Calcutta bench, it will aid the decision making process by helping take into account regional aspects of matters. I completely agree with the Hon'ble Judge's observations," said Bains.

Senior Advocate Angshuman Bora of Guwahati High Court highlighted that for those living in north-eastern parts of India, setting up of regional benches of the Top Court is an absolutely necessary step.

 "It is an absolutely necessary step because from where I belong, it is far, far from Delhi," Bora said.

Bora pointed out that there has been a demand for setting up circuit bench in North East India for very long, especially because it is as North-East is not financially richer and access to justice becomes an issue for the common people in order to approach Supreme Court for appellate petitions.

"So there has been a long demand that there should be a circuit bench in the North-East itself, rather than even Kolkata. Right now they are discussing 4 benches, but our demand would be for a bench at Guwahati. It will definitely be a good step. The demand is already there, you know the Supreme Court is very expensive, otherwise also. It will be a very welcome step."
- Senior Advocate Angshuman Bora

Vice President, Goa High Court Bar Association, Advocate Cleofato Coutinho said India not only has a unified judiciary, but an integrated judiciary and that by holding a circuit bench, it would not going to affect the integrity or unity of the Supreme Court in any manner.

that the move will indeed be welcome as the litigation at Goa dies down at the level of the High Court due to costs involved in the travel to Delhi for the litigants.

"So if there are Circuit Benches, it would be very good - something like Bombay, Bengaluru would be good for everybody. There could be more matters that go to the Supreme Court. Right now, if you see, every matter from Delhi goes to Supreme Court, but every matter from Bombay does not go to Supreme Court - even if it is meritorious," said Coutinho

Advocate Kit Kharmawphlang of Meghalaya High Court said, "It's a good thing, it will definitely help litigants from this part of the country. Some of them are financially not sound - so a Circuit Bench will save time, efforts, expenses and justice will also be delivered faster. Must say that it's a very sound view."

"Beneficial step for ever-expanding jural needs; will reduce pendency"

Justice Govind Mathur (Former Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court) said that though the opinion of Justice Kirubakaran appears attractive, all efforts must be made for lightening disposal of Appeals and reducing cost of litigation  than to bifurcate the highest constitutional court by establishing benches in four directions. 

Senior Advocate Subodh Markandeya from Supreme Court stated that though there was a lack of precedents elsewhere, this should not deter us from adopting a bold course to make way for Supreme Court benches which are set up regionally.

"This is a step which is most just and equitable to all parts of the Country and which is necessary, not only for taking the unnecessary burden off the Supreme Court but is otherwise necessary for meeting our fast-expanding jural needs," he said

Markandeya also said that pendency was an extremely serious issue since 1981 itself and no steps were taken and though setting up of Circuit/Regional/Zonal Courts was suggested by various Law Commissions, it was never done. "Progress is achieved if we move forward," he said.
 

"Such a step will be equitable to all parts of India and automatically remove (i) the present unnecessary burden on the Supreme Court and (ii) the heavy "tilt" in the favour of litigants from the north"
- Senior Advocate Subodh Markandeya

Interestingly, Markandeya also pointed out that the Supreme Court itself could resolve the issue of setting up benches across the country by deciding the pending case (Vasanth Kumar) and giving out directions to form Constitutional Division and Appellate Division of the SCI, the latter having Circuit Benches in the east, west, north-south and centre. "Such an arrangement can be put in place till the Parliament passes a law," Markandeya said.

Senior Advocate G. Shivdass (Karnataka High Court) said that apart from making justice easily accessible to people in various regions, the same will also reduce the pendency of various types of non-constitutional issues in the Supreme Court at Delhi and allow it to concentrate and decide on important constitutional issues.

Senior Advocate Vivek Sood, Supreme Court said that In my the issue regarding regional benches of the Supreme Court indeed called for a debate. 

"All stakeholders such as the Bar Associations, Bar Council of India, Supreme Court judges, and the Government of India must be engaged in this debate. It’s a futuristic idea for the benefit of the litigants and makes members of the legal fraternity across the country as part of the Supreme Court. It would usher legal democracy in the country."
- Senior Advocate Vivek Sood

Given the fact that justice must be accessible, therefore various regional benches may provide immediate solace to those deprived of the option of the final court of justice, said Senior Advocate RN Sahay of Jharkhand High Court.

"It will, no doubt, be a progressive step since the same implies - increased access to justice, increased number of judges of the Supreme Court, relieving judiciary of excessive burden, and decrease in inordinate delay in justice dispensation. Overall, it would resonate with the spirit of our Constitution." Sahai said.

Advocate on Record Vikram Hegde said that he was broadly in agreement with the move, except with the caveat that the bench for South India should be in Bengaluru and not Chennai as has been often proposed.

"Justice will get diluted; Virtual Courts are the answer"

Senior Advocate Gopal Swarup Chaturvedi (Allahabad High Court) said that it is not correct to say that setting up of regional and circuit benches will help in dispensation of justice. He pointed out that a single Supreme Court is very important for a unified judiciary and with circuit benches of the Supreme Court, the quality of justice will infact get diluted. 

"The Supreme Court at Chennai and Supreme Court at Delhi will never be on the same page," said Chaturvedi.

While adopting a more nuanced approach to the issue, Chaturvedi said that in the British era, there were just two High Courts catering to all of north-western India - the High Court at Allahabad and the High Court at Lahore.

In this context he said that if physical access is in consideration, Supreme Court in fact, should never have been in Delhi. "It should've been at Madhya Pradesh.. somewhere in the middle of the country. High Court and the capital of the state should also not be in the same city either, if physical proximity is a consideration, because the entire bureaucracy and all the judges end up in the same city. You can't avoid contact between them, can't avoid influence of one over the other. The farther away the bureaucracy is from the judiciary, the better it is," he said.

Senior Advocate Rajni Iyer (Bombay High Court) pointed out that Video conferencing is the answer to circuit benches not being required. She added that if there is an insistence on physical hearings, then circuit benches importance can be examined in future after one is assured of certain other objective factors.

"Do you want it only for the convenience of the public or for greater inputs on local, regional tensions and requirements? All these factors have to be taken into consideration, there cannot be a one-dimensional answer," said Iyer

Advocate on Record Charu Mathur pointed out that with the option of virtual or hybrid hearing, the argument of accessibility of Justice and the need for regional/circuit benches fall. "A matter can be literally managed from one’s office or even the bedroom. Even if we have benches say in Chennai then also a litigant in a remote village has to travel. With technology, he needn’t even do that. It’s immaterial whether it is Delhi or Chennai. The physical location is becoming immaterial," she said.

Advocate on Record Rashmi Bansal too said that with the development of the technology and with the perfect working with online platforms, with which Supreme Court of India has been working since last two years, it is remarkable and people around the each corner of India, can file their petitions before it. Seeing this change, the idea to set up Supreme Court of India  branches around India, just to make people not to travel to Delhi, is already resolved

On the issue of geographical proximity, Senior Advocate Rajnandan Sahai of Jharkhand High Court pointed out that people believe, Supreme Court being in Delhi serves as a challenge for those across the country to access it. He however pointed out that but even sitting here in Ranchi one is  ultimately filing cases in Supreme Court also

"Whether I have to travel to a bench in Kolkata or Delhi, it will not make much of a difference. The repercussions of the move will also have to be examined," said Sahai.

Justice Shivaji Pandey (Former Judge, Patna High Court) pointed out that so far as constitution of circuit benches of the Supreme Court is concerned, he does not agree with the view of his brother Justice.

"First, that this will dilute the efficacy of the Supreme Court. Second, look at any country in the world, be it the US (which is such a big country), China, France, England etc they all just have one Supreme Court. If there are circuit benches set up, soon political gimmicks will start that there should be benches in every capital," said Justice Pandey.

He added that having circuit benches will deteriorate the quality of judgments.

"The Supreme Court is in Delhi right from 1950, connectivity both by rail and air is very good. My view is that there should not be any circuit bench of the Supreme Court. Judicial chaos may not be there but the quality of judgments may suffer. Already the Supreme Court is facing a lot of problems. If a big country like America can function with 1 Supreme Court, why can't we? Nowhere in the world do you have circuit benches of Supreme Court."

Justice Govind Mathur held a similar view on the dilution of justice dispensation. "More benches will bring more divergent views and that would not be good for the health of justice delivery system," he said.

"Circuit benches cumbersome, adds costs; Time for splitting Court of Appeal & Constitutional Court "

Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose, Supreme Court said that though he was wary of the genuine difficulties and obstacles faced by lawyers and litigants on account of centralisation of the Apex Court in the national capital, his experience of circuit benches told him that such an experiment would only prove expensive, cumbersome and time-consuming. He added that while there is definitely a potential of giving opportunity to local talent through setting up of circuit benches, that can be ensured by e-filing and continuation of the virtual system.  

Advocate C.K. Nanakumar of Karnataka High Court said perhaps the time had come to make the split between a court of appeal and a constitutional court since most matters that reach the Supreme Court do not involve a significant point involving the interpretation of the constitution. "The system is overwhelmed with regular civil, criminal and tax appeals. Making the distinction would make it easier for litigants, lawyers and judges alike," he said.

Ghose too, raised a similar point by stating that a case is definitely made out for separation of the appellate and constitutional side of the Top Court.

"To ensure cohesiveness the Constitutional Court should sit as a collegiate body of 9 such as in the US. The remaining justices could form part of the appellate division of the court," he added.

 

Alas! The Vibrant Bar!

[Formulated with inputs by the Lawbeat Team: Shreya Agarwal (Associate Editor), Shaheen Parween (Principal Correspondent), Gautam Misra (Special Correspondent),  Ratna Singh (Legal Correspondent) & Thyragrajan Narendran]