The Supreme Court of India, as the highest court of the land, has a sacrosanct function to ensure that the country is governed adhering to the principles of the rule of law. It has evolved remarkably well, steering the country through thick and thin. It also has had a tremendous contribution to the jurisprudential landscape, not just in the country but also internationally. The time has come, however, to revisit the court’s function and align it with the needs of today.
- In this regard, the Supreme Court had requested the Central government to consider the possibility of establishing a National Court of Appeal which has elicited mixed reactions from the legal community.
What is a National Court of Appeal?
The National Court Appeal with regional benches in Chennai, Mumbai and Kolkata is meant to act as final court of justice in dealing with appeals from the decisions of the High Courts and tribunals within their region in civil, criminal, labour and revenue matters. In such a scenario, a much-relieved Supreme Court of India situated in Delhi would only hear matters of constitutional law and public law.
However, the Centre has rejected this idea. It cites three grounds for rejecting the idea —
- The Supreme Court always sits in Delhi as per the Constitution.
- The Chief Justices of India in the past have “consistently opposed” the idea of an NCA or regional benches to the Supreme Court.
- An NCA would “completely change the constitution of the Supreme Court”.
Why this is a good idea?
- A National Court of Appeals makes sense, with the Supreme Court being burdened with cases of all kinds. The Supreme Court was meant to be a Constitutional Court. However, the sheer weight of its case backlog leaves the court with little time for its primal functions.
- Geographical proximity to the court is definitely an aspect of access to justice. The fact that the Supreme Court sits only in New Delhi limits accessibility to litigants from south India. High Courts meant for facilitating easy access to justice are losing their sheen in many ways.
- If a court of appeal is established, the majority of appeals from high courts can be addressed in these courts.
- A court of appeal can work as an excellent mechanism to sieve cases. If there are areas of law that are particularly unsettled and need clarification, the court of appeal can club them together and send these forward to the Supreme Court. Not only can a number of individual cases be disposed of but areas of law can also be settled and a clear precedent set.
- If the Supreme Court only deals with crucial cases, the process will become streamlined and will save a lot of time and expense, for both litigants and the courts.
- It would relieve the Supreme Court of the weight of hearing regular civil and criminal appeals, allowing the court to concentrate on determining only fundamental questions of constitutional importance.
Why this is not a good idea?
- Splitting the Supreme Court will be a very regrettable step. The Supreme Court has to be at one place and there can’t be circuit benches like high courts.
- Dilution of the Supreme Court and its aura as an apex court may not be in line with the concept of the Supreme Court envisioned by the architects of the Constitution.
- The issue of proximity is relevant only up to high courts and can’t be extended to the Supreme Court. There are enough high court benches to address that issue.
- This suggestion would require an amendment in Article 130 of the Constitution which is impermissible as this would change the constitution of the Supreme Court completely.
- Also, NCA will mean more expense and hardship to litigant.
What else can be done?
Efforts should be to strengthen subordinate judiciary (high courts) so that proper justice can be dispensed with.
- The Supreme Court should discourage the usage of the High Court as a mere stepping-stone towards the end of judicial hierarchy. The glory and resplendence of High Courts should be reclaimed.
- All High Courts must entertain writs, including in the burgeoning service matters, only before Single Benches in the first instance and then to a Division Bench in the form of a Letter Patents Appeal so as to provide at least a two-tier accessible hierarchy of approach.
- The challenges to orders of tribunals, irrespective of the former status of their adjudicating Members or Chairpersons, must only be allowed to be entertained by Division Benches of High Courts and not directly to the Supreme Court since the highest Court cannot be rendered the first appellate Court from statutory tribunals and neither can justice be made unaffordable for our citizens.
A National Court of Appeal is being advocated as an intermediate forum between the Supreme Court and the various high courts of India. But a better solution to ease the higher judiciary’s burden may lie in strengthening that of the lower. Before adverting to a new layer, the conception of which may be difficult to achieve, we need to strategise and reconfigure our existing judicial hierarchy to the rising challenges before us. The only way to do it is to revitalise our High Courts and restore them to their pinnacle