In 2021, a Private Member’s Bill was introduced in the parliament. It raised the demand to set up four regional benches of the Supreme Court in Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata for the North, West, South, and East zones, respectively, to decentralise the Supreme Court.
This demand is not new, as various standing committees of parliament recommended setting up of regional benches in the early 2000s. In 2009, the 18th Law Commission also recommended the formation of regional benches of the Supreme Court of India.
This article analyses the practical aspects of setting up regional benches of the Supreme Court and its impact on the country’s judicial system.
Constitutional Provision About Seat of the Supreme Court
In 1984, the 10th Law Commission recommended the formation of two divisions of the Supreme Court. One of them may listen to only constitutional matters and thus was recommended to be called the Constitutional Division, and the other may be called the Legal Division for all the remaining cases.
These recommendations find their root in Article 130 of the Indian Constitution. Article 130 of the Indian Constitution says that the Supreme Court shall sit in Delhi or such other place or places as the Chief Justice of India, with the approval of the President, from time to time, appoint. The wording of Article 130 clearly shows that the Constitution makers were well aware of the emergence of the need for regional benches of the Supreme Court in the future.
Problems With Regard to the Centralisation of the Supreme Court
The centralisation of the Supreme Court has given rise to several issues. Presently, the Supreme Court of India sits in Delhi, which makes it a daunting task for people outside of Delhi to seek justice. It has become an expensive affair to knock on the door of the apex court.
Further, the existence of a centralised set-up of the Supreme Court has also given birth to the long line of pending cases, thus, leading to a heavy burden on the apex court.
In 2021, the Bar Associations of various High Courts, specifically from the southern part of the country, raised the demand for regional benches with the Chief Justice and the President of the country. A Private Member’s Bill was also introduced in the parliament, raising the same demand.
The centralised set-up of the Supreme Court also creates a problem for various practising advocates of the country, as those who live out of Delhi or practice in various state High Courts find it difficult to widen their ambit and get an opportunity to plead in the Supreme Court.
The ultimate purpose of the judiciary is to provide justice to every single citizen irrespective of their privileges, but the centralised system makes it difficult for extensively underprivileged people who live in the remotest areas of the country to even think of reaching to Supreme Court.
The above discussion also throws light on Article 39A, which is the Directive Principle of State Policy. Article 39A says that “the State shall secure that the operation of the legal system promotes justice, on the basis of equal opportunity, and shall, in particular, provide free legal aid, by suitable legislation or schemes or in any other way, to ensure that opportunities for securing justice are not denied to any citizen by reason of economic or other disabilities.”
Even various judges in their judgements have emphasised this principle. In a judgement, Justice N. Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court said: “No impression should be given that the Hon’ble Supreme Court is meant only for the people living in and around New Delhi or the states surrounding New Delhi.”
Various High Courts like Madras High Court, Bombay High Court, Guwahati High Court etc., also have their regional benches. These benches were set up after the recommendations made by the Jaswant Singh Commission. However, the Supreme Court has continuously declined the recommendations of various commissions with regard to the regional benches of the Supreme Court.
Arguments in Favour of Regional Benches of Supreme Court
Presently there are 34 seats for judges in the Supreme Court, which is much less in comparison to the population of the country. Even these 34 seats are not filled in, and only 31 judges, including the Chief Justice, are holding the judicial seats at the Supreme Court. This reduces the capacity for the fast delivery of justice. The formation of regional benches will increase the number of seats of judges and will also force the government to appoint more judges to the Supreme Court for all four zones.
Arguments Given Against Regional Benches of Supreme Court
The argument against the idea of setting up regional benches of the Supreme Court is that it will dilute the sacrosanct nature of the Supreme Court and lessen the binding force of the decisions of the Supreme Court. The huge infrastructural cost of setting up these regional benches will further be a loss of money and human resources.
Regional Benches of Supreme Court vs Virtual Courts
Another debate that is negatively impacting the formation of regional courts and suggesting a better alternative to it is the setting up of virtual courts. It is being argued that in today’s digital world, the better alternative to setting up regional benches would be virtual courts which will be cost-effective, will save human resources and most importantly, solve the major issues revolving around the centralised set-up of the Supreme Court. This step will also be the saving factor for justice delivery during various inevitable crises like the emergence of future pandemics. The factual and pragmatic aegis behind this alternative is quite strong.
The country’s judicial system is in huge need of regional benches of the Supreme Court. According to the Ministry of Law and Justice, nearly 70,000 cases are pending in the Supreme Court. These cases are living proof of the failed mechanism of the present centralised system of justice delivery system.
Thus, a decentralised Supreme Court with its judicial tentacles in all four zones should be encouraged in the form of setting up more regional benches, either in physical or virtual form, according to the need of circumstances so that the judiciary at the apex level functions in a fast and fair manner.
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