The Supreme Court has issued guidelines for a pilot study to test the scheme of employing retired judicial officers and retired court staff to operationalise the Special Courts under the Negotiable Instruments Act, 1881.

The Bench of Justice L. Nageswara Rao, Justice B. R. Gavai and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat by its order of May 19 laid down guidelines for carrying out pilot study in lieu of expeditious trial of cases under Section 138 of the NI Act. This comes after the amici curiae had suggested a pilot study to test the scheme of employing retired judicial officers and retired court staff to operationalise the Special Courts under the NI Act.

Brief Facts

An expert committee was constituted to consider various suggestions with respect to streamlining the procedure of arresting the judicial docket, in regard to complaints and trials for offences under the NI Act. The expert committee had suggested the creation of de novo Special NI Courts by the Central Government vide its powers under Article 247 to tackle the problem of docket explosion. As per the calculations of the said committee, the establishment of these special NI Courts would require the recruitment of 1,826 special judicial officers and a total cost of Rs. 126.59 crores.

In response to this, the amici curiae questioned the feasibility and practicality of this suggestion and said that it would not be possible to immediately establish de novo courts and recruit fresh candidates and support staff.

It was urged to explore the option of appointing retired judicial/administrative officers who have worked and discharged quasi-judicial functions such as retired Tehsildars, Special executive Magistrates, Registrars of Tribunals and statutory authorities and High Courts etc. officers as Special Judicial/Metropolitan Magistrates for a fixed pay.

A pilot study was suggested to test the scheme of employing retired judicial officers and retired court staff to operationalise the Special Courts under the NI Act by testing this scheme on pilot basis in 5 judicial districts with the highest pendency in the 5 states (namely, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Delhi and Uttar Pradesh). The High Courts of the aforementioned states were asked to respond to the suggestions of the amici curiae and their following responses were recorded-

• The High Court of Bombay identified Nagpur, Nashik, Thane, Pune and CMM, Mumbai as the 5 districts with highest pendency;

• The High Court of Rajasthan identified Jaipur Metro-I, Jaipur Metro-II, Jodhpur Metro, Udaipur and Ajmer as the 5 districts with highest pendency;

• The High Court of Allahabad identified Lucknow, Agra, Kanpur, Gautambudh Nagar and Ghaziabad as the 5 districts with highest pendency;

• The High Court of Gujarat gave concurrence for establishing one additional court to try cases under S. 138 of the N.I. Act as per the pilot project;

• Delhi already has 72 Special Courts for cases under the NI Act.

The guidelines issued by the apex court for the pilot study are as under:

• Pilot study to be conducted for a duration of 1 year from 01.09.2022 to 31.08.2023;

• The pilot study shall be conducted in 25 Special Courts in total;

• Retired judicial officers and retired court staff, preferably those who have retired within the past 5 years, may be employed;

• The infrastructural requirements, including information technology support for video conferencing facilities, should be identified and secured by July 2022 and presiding officers, support staff and human resources required for operationalising these Special Courts and their contractual terms should be finalised by the end of July 2022.

• Four-week training programme by the State Judicial Academies on topics of substantive, procedure and evidence law related to the offences under the NI Act shall be conducted for judicial officers, who are to preside over the Special Courts;

• The concerned HC shall ensure that the presiding officers and court staff for operationalising the Special Courts can be hired on contractual basis for one year for the duration of the pilot study and that they be paid a fixed honorarium in accordance with their standing prior to retirement;

• The Special Courts shall adjudicate upon only those cases in which summons have been duly served and the accused has entered appearance through a lawyer or in person and all such cases should be identified by July and a comprehensive list of these cases should be posted before the regular Magistrates expeditiously. The final comprehensive list of cases, where service is complete and the matters are not referred to mediation, must be identified by the end of July;

• The working days and working hours of the Special Courts should be notified by the end of July;

• The Special Courts set up for the pilot study shall follow the same procedure with respect to trial as mandated by the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973; adjournments should not be routinely given;

• List or panel of mediators must be identified by the end of July and circulated to all the presiding officers of the Special Court;

• A weekly statement of disposal shall be sent to the Registrar General of the concerned High Courts who shall actively monitor the progress of the pilot study. Quarterly statements of disposal must be sent to the SC.

The SC stated that to report progress and compliance, each of the said five High Courts shall file an affidavit on or before 21.07.2022.

Ever-increasing Pendency of Cases

The Court observed that "as per the report of the expert committee, 26,07,166 complaints were pending at various stages before the Courts seized of trial of offences under the NI Act. As on 13.04.2022, this pendency has increased to 33,44,290. This is an increase in pendency of 7,37,124 cases in a period of just over 5 months. As per the data available on 08.11.2021, NI Act cases contribute to 8.81% of the total criminal cases pending in the courts. Further, 11.82% of the total criminal cases that are stagnating due to appearance/service related issues are NI Act cases."

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