The Supreme Court recently admitted an SLP (Special Leave Petition) under Article 136 of the Constitution on the setting up of a National Court of Appeal (NCA) with regional benches which will act as final courts of appeal in civil, criminal, revenue and labour matters <Can you tell us, what is SLP in comments>.
In 1987, in the case of Bihar Legal Support Society v. the Chief Justice of India, the proposal to set up the National Court of Appeal was mooted and welcome by the then Chief Justice P N Bhagwati. The current petition by Chennai based lawyer has once, again brought the issue to the fore.
The Supreme Court will set up a Constitution Bench to decide on the proposed NCA as primarily, it raises the following question related to the interpretation of the Constitution
As of now, the Supreme Court is the final court of appeal in all cases. With the NCA, the role of the Apex Court would be restricted to hearing only constitutional and public law cases. Would this amount to tinkering with the ‘basic structure’ of the Constitution?
Given the never-ending and ever –increasing case-load on the Apex Court, the NCA could be a welcome change on the following grounds:
(a) Clearing the massive backlog: With the huge pendency of cases in all three levels of Judiciary, the National Court of Appeal with its regional benches may prove to be crucial in clearing the massive backlog of cases. About 98% of the Apex Court’s time is wasted on routine matters like bail pleas, dishonor of cheques, traffic violations, correcting errors in HC judgments.
With the NCA hearing matters pertaining to civil, criminal, labour and revenue laws, Supreme Court would be able to concentrate on the more important public law concerns.
(b) Restoring the Apex position of the Apex Court: With the Supreme Court getting an opportunity to hear exclusively on constitutional and public law matters, its position as the final arbiter on constitutional cases and on developing the law will be further strengthened.
This is in tune with the scenario in England, UK and Wales where the Supreme Court only rules on matters of constitutional importance or sets a new legal precedent.
(c) Greater access to justice: Access to justice is a fundamental right for all
The Centre has been challenging the move to set up the NCA on the following grounds:
(a) Dilution of the powers of Apex Court: Currently, many citizens resort to Article 136 of the Constitution in any sort of matter. With the subject matter of disputes being divided amongst NCA and the Supreme Court, Supreme Court’s exclusive power to entertain appeals under Article 136 will be significantly diluted.
(b) Compromise the unified structure of the Judiciary: Currently, there is one Apex Court with the High Court in states followed by subordinate courts. This integrated structure will suffer a backseat with NCA somewhere in the middle between High Courts and Supreme Court
Moreover, earlier proposals to set up Regional Benches of the Supreme Court with one bench in each region have been rejected by the Supreme Court on the ground that it will affect the unitary character of the Judiciary and that there can be only one Supreme Court.
For providing greater access to citizens from far-flung areas, it has been proposed that there could be dedicated courtrooms with video conferencing facilities for litigants and lawyers from far-flung areas. This will avoid the need of setting up regional benches and even NCA to a great extent.
(c) Large-scale Constitutional amendments required: For bringing the NCA into existence, several provisions of the Constitution related to independence of Judiciary, hierarchy of Courts, powers of Supreme Court etc. will have to be amended. Moreover, Article 136 of the Constitution is a part of the basic structure and in view of the decision in Keshvananda Bharati case, limiting the powers of Supreme Court through NCA will be extremely difficult.
The solution does not lie with creating courts of appeal because it would not bring down litigation. The Supreme Court has to exercise restraint on the manner of interference under its constitutional power. Today people take chances and come to Supreme Court on every issue, including challenging an adjournment order – Attorney General
But the Supreme Court rejected it in 2010, saying dividing the Supreme Court would affect the country’s unitary character. A Full Court comprising all SC judges reiterated its earlier resolutions passed in 1999, 2001, 2004 and 2006 in this regard.
CONCLUSION: The burgeoning backlog of cases plaguing all the three levels of judiciary demand more resources and institutional reforms to deal with the problem. However, any proposals to set up institutions like the NCA will require Constitutional amendments and major Legislative will to go through. This at present is not forthcoming. The idea of a National Court of Appeal requires consideration, but in a manner that would not undermine the undoubted authority of the Supreme Court of India. The next hearing for the matter is slated up for April 4.
P.S. This article is published with inputs from a CD user Joyousjojo (name changed on request).
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