This article is written by Harmanpreet Kaur of Amity University, Kolkata. The article will deal with the lapses in the judicial system during the pandemic, and the alternatives used to succumb to the problem, and also will talk about the importance of Article 142 of the Constitution of India.
The novel coronavirus engulfed the world into an unprecedented crisis, which resultantly forced the countries to take steps to enforce the nationwide lockdown. India issued the orders of lockdown under the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 to control the spreading of the virus. The pandemic has affected every sector in the country from health, economic to the judicial sector.
One of the repercussions of the lockdown was the restrictions on the systematic functioning of the courts, which stimulated the proper functioning of the High Courts and the Supreme Court, and were asked to surcease i.e., to not hold court proceedings for a concerned period of time. These restrictions on the functioning of the courts gave rise to several questions i.e, whether the non-functioning of the courts dominated the justice system in the country? Or whether the courts should adopt alternatives other than physical hearings to look into the matters? Or whether they should pass or issue orders for the ‘urgent hearings’?
The article would discuss in brief how the closure of the courts affected the justice system in India and the steps taken by them to curtail the practice of physical hearings and adopt alternatives instead.
Justice delayed is justice denied – a look in times of pandemic
“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied” is a legal maxim which states that if no equitable remedy or relief is provided to the injured party in a timely manner then it would amount to no remedy at all on the ends of the judiciary. The pandemic has impacted the justice system in the world with a focus on access to justice. Justice delayed means unresolved disputes between the different legal persons and individuals and it hampers efforts that are aimed to strengthen people’s shared prosperity.
The judicial system is complex and is hence overburdened which has led to an increase in the pending litigations, resulting in the delay of justice. The Indian judiciary is devoid of the guidelines and the procedure that the court should follow to dispose of the matters before them for the determination, in order to impart justice. The judiciary has always faced the issues of delay in deciding the cases. The pandemic weakened the working mechanism of the judiciary and the justice system, as the physical hearings in the court were stopped, which resulted in the backlog of cases and delayed injustice. The Indian courts are characterized by lengthy periods of court inactivity with respect to intricate cases, which resultantly brings about extreme delays in the court proceedings. The delay in the justice system may be due to disputes relating to court jurisdiction distributions, court office transfers, lack of sufficient personnel, multi-member judge panels, case backlogs, court officer inaction, and systematic procedural rule shortcomings. In relation to the court proceedings, the problems include non-summoning of the witness by parties, illegal summons, delay ineffective legislation, disputes of court jurisdiction, frequent case adjournments and breaks during hearings and deferment of hearings.
The pandemic has affected the procedural system in the courts, and have resulted in the following consequences:
Pendency of case
According to the report, the case pendency in India is quite alarming. Even though the courts adopted various alternatives in the Indian legal system to avoid the overburdening of work by the technological advancements at the times of the pandemic, there was an increase of 6.6 percent of pending cases in the judiciary bodies, i.e, .4 crore cases were pending during the time of the pandemic. The lockdown delayed the system of providing justice, but after the lockdown, the courts faced the problem in the backlog of cases. According to the report from the constitutional bench, there were about 500 cases pending to be solved before the Supreme Court and resultantly 5 to 6 cases were filed daily increasing the cases thereby. The cases were either stuck on trivial matters or procedural matters leading to the delay in the justice system.
Tracking of the cases
The second cause of the delay of justice in the pandemic would be the tracking of the cases. The problem is with the administrative system. The system tracks the existing and the new cases, only when the judges are assigned to a given court, and consequently, the judges at the district and the subordinate courts solve the simple cases first, which acts as an injustice to the parties in disputes.
Working hours of the court
The Supreme Court has been assigned to work only for 185 days in a year which has led to the delay in the court proceedings. The limited working hours in the lockdown terminated the postponement in some cases. After the lockdown, the courts should increase their respective working hours.
Scheduled case hearings
The cases that were scheduled for hearing before the court, were delayed due to the pronouncement of the nationwide lockdown, thereby resulting in further delay and also giving the liability to the accused to play foul with the evidence. This will be affecting both the accused and the people acquitted in the jail pending bail proceedings.
Facilitating the hearing of ‘urgent cases’
The courts during the phase of lockdown through virtual hearings expressed their opinion to take up matters of urgent cases over the non-urgent ones, thereby resulting in the delay of justice. Urgent cases are the cases that are considered of prime importance by the courts, as the delay in their hearings could lead to agitation and violence in the spheres of the society. After the reopening of the courts the spate of new cases increased, and hence will be adjourned by the court as a priority and the old cases will be appearing on rosters.
Justice hurried is justice buried – a look in times of pandemic
The judiciary as a relief to the delay in the justice system adopted the mechanism of virtual courts for the proper and able administrative functioning of the courts during this unprecedented crisis so as to avoid the pendency of the cases in the courts. Due to the onset of the lockdown, the core functionality of the open courts was crippled. The virtual court system was adopted as an alternative to the physical hearings of the courts. Afterward, the courts adopted the virtual system of deciding the cases, which had a positive impact on the judicial system.
The panel of the parliament after the success of the virtual hearings had also suggested during its meetings that the virtual courts should be continued in the matters of appeals and final decisions, but only if the parties in a dispute consented to it after the pandemic as it would pave a way for the cheaper and faster means of delivery of justice. The permanent virtual proceedings were propounded by the committee for appellate tribunals like Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunals, Intellectual Property Appellate Tribunal, and National Company Law Appellate Tribunal. The advantages of the virtual courts in the judicial system were:
- To decrease the cost and increase the efficiency in the disposal of the cases.
- To ensure speedy justice to all the litigants and the disputed parties.
- There will not be long tiring procedural sessions and would reduce commute time to the courts.
- They would be affordable, citizen-friendly, and would provide greater access to justice.
- Court services can be made accessible to all citizens.
The other recommendations included setting up of E-Seva Kendras at the court jurisdictions, speedy execution of cases filed, and the introduction of computer courses for the law students.
Thus, in the time of the pandemic even though the courts were not able to function physically and administer physical hearing, the concept of virtual courts proved to be a significant approach. Consequently, the mechanism of virtual courts would strike a balance between the two antipodes i.e, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ and ‘justice hurried is justice buried’, extending an expeditious justice to the litigants and the parties in the dispute without any compromise to the equality and would also reduce the pendency and backlog of the cases that had been clogging the wheels of justice for decades.
The limitation period in covid times and Apex Court’s plenary powers
The Limitation Act, 1963
Law of limitation is a statute of repose, peace, and justice. It is a matter of repose because it extinguishes state demands and quiets the title. It seeks to obtain peace and security by raising a presumption that a right not exercised for a long time is non-existent. It is intended to do justice as much as it takes into consideration the ground reality that the rights of the parties should be in a state of constant doubt, dispute, or uncertainty. It is founded on a public policy with the aim of securing peace, suppressing fraud and perjury, quickening diligence, and preventing oppression.
Statutes of limitation are based on two well-known legal maxims:
- The interest of the state requires that there should be an end to litigation.
- The law assists the vigilant and not one who sleeps over his rights.
The Act applies to the proceedings which can be initiated in the court of law.
Section 3 of the Limitation Act, 1963 states that every suit instituted, appeal preferred and the application made after the prescribed period shall be dismissed, although limitation has not been set up as a defense. It is thus peremptory or mandatory in nature and casts a duty on the court to dismiss the suit, appeal or application if it is beyond the period of limitation.
The Delhi High Court stated, “Lockdown/Suspension of work of Courts shall be treated as “closure” within the meaning of the Explanation appended to Section 4 of the Limitation Act, 1963 and other enabling provisions of the Act and other Statutes, as may be applied to court proceedings”.
The period for filing a special leave to appeal to the Supreme Court is for 90 days. Taking into consideration the extraordinary situation, as due to the challenges faced by the country on account of covid, the Supreme Court in the case of re: cognizance for extension of the period passed an order stating that period of limitation in all the cases in the court proceedings in all the courts and tribunals dated 23rd March should be extended from March 15, 2020, so that there is no injustice to the litigants in the disputed cases.
The Supreme Court bypassing the order of the extension to the limitation period invoked its plenary powers under Article 142 of the Constitution for appeals in the high courts and the tribunals because of the unprecedented crisis and due to the alarming situation of the pandemic. The bench comprising of CJI, SA Bobde and Justices LN Rao and Surya Kant took a suo moto cognizance of the situation arising out of the novel coronavirus pandemic, so as to provide justice to the litigants in accordance with the objectives of the Limitation Act, 1963.
The Supreme Court thus elucidated on the extension of the period for limitation stating that as there is a possibility that the litigants might face difficulties in filing appeals, petitions, and suits in the court within the prescribed time limit as specified by the various special laws, it was thereby ordered that they have been given the right to file appeals whenever the situation deems fit irrespective of the time period prescribed by various special laws and acts.
Inherent powers of the Supreme Court
The Indian judiciary and the Constitution of India have affirmed that every citizen of India is liable to acquire complete justice. Article 142 of the Constitution of India grants the power to the Supreme Court for any decree or order to ensure that the citizens are getting fair and equitable justice. Article 142 states that the Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass any decree order that is necessary for doing complete justice in the matter pending before it. The decree or order made by the court shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India in such manner as may be prescribed under any law made by the parliament. Until provision is made by the parliament, the orders of the court will be enforced in the manner prescribed by the president. Article 144 provides that “all authorities civil and Judicial, in the territory of India shall act in the aid of the Supreme Court”. The power under Article142 is an inherent power and can be used for doing complete justice. The object of the article is that it enables the court to declare the law to give such directions or pass orders as are necessary to do complete justice.
In the case of Delhi Judicial Services Association v. State of Gujarat, 1991, the Supreme Court quashed the criminal proceedings against the petitioners in the context that it is the court’s inherent power under Article142 coupled with plenary and residuary powers under Article 32 and Article 136 to quash the criminal proceedings pending before the court to do complete justice to the litigants.
In the case of Union Carbide Corporation v. Union of India, 1991, the Supreme Court upheld the settlement between the Central Government and the Union Carbide Corporation (UCC) and quashed all civil and criminal proceedings against the UCC pending in any court in order to do complete justice in the matter pending before the court.
In the recent Ayodhya Case, the Supreme Court invoked Article 142 by passing a unanimous judgment, wherein the court gave the power to the Central Government to form trust so that the temple and the mosque can be built.
The Supreme Court’s order on the extension of the time limit for filing litigations was to provide complete justice to the litigants in the situation of the pandemic so that the parties are able to file their appeals correspondingly. The inherent powers under Article 142 cannot be involved when no alternative remedy is available and has already been availed of. It is only meant to correct orders.
The power to do ‘complete justice’ in any “cause” or “matter” is plenary in nature which is entirely of a different level and of a different quality. Any prohibition or restriction contained in the ordinary laws cannot act as a limitation on the constitutional power of the Supreme Court.
The judiciary, even though it has been criticized for the delay in the judgment procedure, has tried to resolve the cases through judicial activism. The pandemic forced the judiciary to adopt technological advancements in their working mechanism, so as to avoid the backlog of cases and justice prevailed in a timely manner. The technological advancements in the judiciary will be beneficial to both the courts and the litigants. The Judiciary has thus from time and again taken measures to solve the cases and avoid delays in the hearings even in the period of lockdown and had also exercised its powers lawfully, in granting justice to the citizens, by invoking the various provisions and articles of the Constitution. But as there are no proper guidelines and a fixed time span for the disposal of cases, the justice is delayed.
- The Limitation Act, 1963, eighth edn, C.K.Takwani.
- Constitutional Law of India, M.P. Jain.
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