Chief Justice HL Dattu has once again initiated the debate for setting up of the National Court of Appeal (NCA) with regional benches in major cities to hear appeals against high court judgments. A bench headed by the CJI asked the Centre to decide the “positive and significant” issue within six months after Puducherry-based advocate V Vasantha Kumar apprised it that the distance of the apex court in New Delhi from other parts of the country, coupled with high travel expenses and cost of litigation, were preventing citizens from far-flung areas to approach the top court of the land, which is also burdened with numerous pending cases.
The Supreme Court’s direction is in tune with the Law Commission’s report which suggested that such benches be set up in the north, south, east and west to deal with appellate work arising from judgments of high courts.
A five-judge bench of the apex court, in the case Bihar Legal Support Society vs Chief Justice of India, in 1987, found the establishment of NCA “most desirable” and said that the present apex court should only entertain cases involving questions of constitutional and public law. However, the issue didn’t find favour with other apex court benches since then and it was dumped in cold storage.
Legal experts feel that setting up of regional benches will dilute the constitutional superiority of the Supreme Court.
Constitutional expert Arvind Dattar says, “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. Unfortunately for the people from the south it is a problem. But what to do? Instead, efforts should be to strengthen subordinate judiciary (high courts) so that proper justice can be dispensed with.”
Supreme Court senior lawyer Ashok Bhan holds a similar view. “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. Social dynamics and needs of the country have not changed considerably to look for a review of any constitutional scheme framed long ago. Having multiple benches is not done unless there is a dire need presented by the states or a political class.”
Senior Supreme Court lawyer Raju Ramachandran feels the same. “Ideally, there is only one Supreme Court. 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. Then you need to have a super Supreme Court to settle the difference of opinions between different benches. But that super Supreme Court has to be located in one place only,” he says.
According to Supreme Court lawyer MR Shamshad, there is a wrong impression that the Supreme Court is the appellate court. “The normal appellate courts are high courts that are in most states, like every state has a capital. If distance from one point to another is made a reason for special benches then you would need four branches of central capital of the country.
The US Supreme Court exercises jurisdiction like our Supreme Court and they have only one court with very few judges. For a long-term solution, we need to focus on the courts of first instance, i.e. trial courts. If we do that, the need of approaching the Supreme Court will substantially reduce.”
However, eminent lawyer KK Venugopal had earlier opined that the apex court had strayed from its original character as a constitutional court and the apex court of the country by gradually converting itself into a mere court of appeal, “which has sought to correct every error which it finds in the judgments of the high courts of the country.” He mooted the idea of creation of intermediate courts by an amendment to the Constitution and suggested that instead of adding more judges to the Supreme Court, four regional or zonal courts of appeal should be set up as final appellate courts, while restricting the Supreme Court to its true function as a constitutional court.
According to a survey, among the cases filed in the Supreme Court, the highest number are from the high courts in northern states—14% from Delhi, 9.8% from Punjab and Haryana, 7% from Uttarakhand, and 4.3% from Himachal Pradesh. The lowest figures are from the high courts in the south—Kerala 2.5%, Andhra Pradesh 2.8%, and 1.1% from the Madras High Court.