Column| Only 2.5 Minutes For A Case: Is It Something To Be Proud Of?
A Division Bench of the Bombay High Court comprising of Justice SS Shinde and Justice MN Jhadav was lauded for staying late on two consecutive days last week to clear its board.
Law Minister Kiren Rijiju displayed his appreciation for the Bench through his official Twitter handle.
"I'm very happy to learn that Justice SS Shinde of Bombay High Court had heard over 190 cases yesterday. He sat in the bench from 10.30 am to 8 pm !", said his first tweet of June 10. "I'm told that once again Justice SS Shinde bench of Bombay High Court sat till 8.30 pm today, and heard 215 cases! Well done", he said through a second tweet on the same day.
It appears that the Bench sat for nine and half hours last Thursday and ten hours last Friday. The Bombay High Court has a lunch break of one hour. If that lunch break was taken, the Bench has given about 2.6 minutes per case on Thursday and 2.5 minutes per case on Friday.
On 'Miscellaneous Days' of the Supreme Court, Mondays and Fridays, the Court considers a large number of cases during its regular working hours. Lawyers have always been critical of how the Court rushes through cases on those days. However, Supreme Court generally considers only fresh cases for admission and interim relief during Miscellaneous Days.
That was not the case with the Bombay High Court on the last Thursday or Friday. On Thursday, 206 cases were listed before the Bench headed by Justice S. S. Shinde. It included some "for hearing and final disposal" cases.
"Give me a couple of minutes." This is a much repeated expression in our daily routine. Two minutes. 120 seconds. This tiny snippet of time passes before you know it. It repeats itself between 150 and 300 times before the work day is done. Coffee break, quick phone call, fixing a jammed printer-two minutes isn't usually enough to complete any of these innocuous tasks. However, two minutes is the average time that a judge in the Patna High Court gets to spend on a hearing on a regular day. Two minutes! This is just one of several alarming statistics that Daksh has found in its study of the Indian judiciary", said a 2016 India Today report on a study about the pendency of cases and functioning of our judiciary.
As per the said study, the workload of a Patna High Court judge is such that the judge is only able to give 2 minutes per hearing. Whereas it is 9.4 minutes in Delhi High Court, it is 15 minutes per case in Tripura High Court.
Justice hurried could be justice buried, as per experts. Every lawyer will not be able to present his case in such an extremely short span of time and every case cannot be effectively adjudicated in a hurry. Most litigants expend huge amounts of money to approach Courts like the Bombay High Court. Justice may not be done in all cases in 2.5 minutes and certainly, justice may not be seen to be done in most cases in such a hurry.
Yet another aspect is the reckoning of the 'disposal rate' of cases by judges. Setting targets for judges for disposal or judging the merit of judges based on 'disposal rate' may not always be a good idea.
In the 2021 case of Ajit Mohan & Ors. v. Legislative Assembly National Capital Territory & Ors, the Supreme Court wrote the following postscript about the hearing of that case which lasted for 26 hours. This is what the Court had to say:
"We do believe that there needs to be clarity in the thought process on what is to be addressed before the Court. Counsels must be clear on the contours of their submissions from the very inception of the arguments. This should be submitted as a brief synopsis by both sides and then strictly adhered to. Much as the legal fraternity would not want, restriction of time period for oral submissions is an aspect which must be brought into force. We really doubt whether any judicial forum anywhere in the world would allow such time periods to be taken for oral submissions and these be further supplemented by written synopsis thereafter. Instead of restricting oral arguments it has become a competing arena of who gets to argue for the longest time."
Clearly, a balance needs to be struck between hurried hearings and unnecessarily long hearings.
Several Benches of the High Court have been sitting beyond Court hours to complete their board after the High Court re-opened post-summer break, with the likes of Division Benches led by Justice SV Gangapurwala and Benches of Justice PD Naik and Justice Bharati Dangre.
Not surprisingly, Judges having to sit until late hours to complete the board is not a recent trend or uncommon phenomenon in the Bombay High Court. In 2018, Justice Kathawala sat until late hours extending up to midnight and beyond on multiple occasions to clear the board.
Observing this trend shines light on the shortage of Judges. With the vacancies in the High Court burgeoning, the decision of the Judges to stay beyond Court hours stems from compulsion. This is not necessarily positive.
Although the dedication of the legal fraternity must be appreciated, the distress faced by the Judges, lawyers and support staff due to working long hours on multiple occasions must not get lost in conversation.
Despite a sanctioned strength of 94 Judges, the Bombay High Court is operating with a strength of less than 60 Judges. Chief Justice Dipankar Datta has lamented about the growing vacancies in the Bombay High Court and said "Where are the judges? Every month, every 15 days we are losing one of our colleagues (due to retirement) … Review meetings say 'ask your judges to sit on Saturday'. They are already overburdened, they have to sit till 7-8 pm every day, on Saturdays. I cannot put more burden on my brother judges."
Likewise, the President of the Bombay Bar Association, Nitin Thakker has also said that he has never known of a time when the sanctioned strength of Judges in the High Court was achieved. Further, he also added that with such a shortage of Judges, each Judge is required to work for 6 people.
An overburdened judiciary also means that each case is heard and disposed of in mere minutes – which may lead to a travesty of justice.
Therefore, it is absolutely essential for the healthy functioning of the judiciary and the principle of justice that there is a timely appointment of Judges to fill the existing vacancies, as well as the vacancies that will arise in the near future.
[The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Verdictum does not assume any responsibility or liability for the contents of the article.]