The Lok Sabha on Monday initiated debate on the Delhi High Court Amendment Bill, 2014. The Bill, which amends the Delhi High Court Act, 1966, aims to reduce the workload of the Delhi HC by enhancing the pecuniary jurisdiction of civil suits tenfold from R20 lakh to R2 crore. Once implemented, it would allow transferring of around 12,500 civil suits, valued up to R2 crore, to the nine less busy district courts in Delhi from the pendency-laden HC. Pecuniary jurisdiction refers to the jurisdiction of a court over a suit based on the amount or value of its subject matter.
However, lawyers of both the district courts and the HC are up in arms over it. A series of strikes, protests and meetings have marked the years since the proposal to increase the pecuniary jurisdiction was cleared by a full bench of the Delhi HC in November 2012.
While bar associations of six district courts—Patiala House, Karkardooma, Tis Hazari, Rohini, Saket and Dwarka—protested against the lack of progress on reforms, the Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA) has opposed the tabling of the Bill without the Commercial Courts Bill being tabled along. The latter, which was part of Arun Jaitley’s Budget speech, is based on recommendations of the Law Commission, which calls for the creation of dedicated courts for high-value commercial cases at the trial court and HC levels, and fixes the pecuniary jurisdiction of all high courts in commercial cases.
Initiating the debate, BJP member Meenakshi Lekhi said people are waiting for justice for a long time due to huge pendency, and once the Bill is passed, pending civil suits in the Delhi HC can be distributed to district courts.
District courts have more capacity than high courts. The Supreme Court website shows that, as on March 31, 2014, as many as 65,159 cases were pending in the Delhi HC with 38 judges against the sanctioned strength of 48 judges. This works out to 1,715 pending cases per judge. In contrast, the Delhi district courts had 522,118 civil and criminal cases pending with an actual strength of 483 judges against the sanctioned strength of 758 during the same period. That works out to 1,081 pending cases per district court judge.
Property prices in Delhi have shot up, and it will be unfair to burden the HC with the original jurisdiction for a small amount like R20 lakh. “It has increased the workload of the Delhi HC … Poor people living in Delhi have to cover considerable distance to approach the Delhi HC to seek justice,” as per the statement of objects and reasons for the Bill.
The Bill was introduced by the UPA in the Rajya Sabha in February 2014 and was approved by a Parliamentary Standing Committee in November 2014. The NDA government endorsed the legislation and it was passed by the Upper House in the Budget session this year.
Experts feel the shifting of thousands of cases from the HC to less busy district courts is a step towards reforming legal sector. Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave says, “The question of pecuniary jurisdiction is for Parliament to decide. It is not proper for the legal community to make an issue out of it by demanding that the jurisdiction be retained by the Delhi HC. Except for the Delhi HC, in all other states, trial courts have the jurisdiction to entertain suits irrespective of limitation. Transfer of jurisdiction will perhaps benefit cause of justice and litigants as well.”
Adds another lawyer MR Shamshad, “The original jurisdiction of the courts needs to be uniform in the larger interest of the judicial process. Such jurisdictions were created for few courts by different set of people in different circumstances. Today there is a similar group who have personal interest in concentrating the corporate litigation in a particular court. I believe we as lawyers need to rise above such things.”
The pecuniary jurisdiction of chartered High Courts of Bombay, Delhi, Madras and Calcutta was fixed in the colonial era and this needs to change. Delhi district courts’ pecuniary jurisdiction started at R25,000 in 1966 and was gradually raised to R20 lakh in 2003.
The Delhi district court bar associations are also united in wanting to get heightened pecuniary jurisdiction, saying the reform would bring justice to the doorstep of litigants. Since there are nine district courts, it is easier for litigants to approach them and get cases decided within two or three years, which is 20 times faster than in the Delhi HC. The cost of litigation will also be less.
Says DHCBA secretary Abhijat Bal, “The proposed amendment to the Delhi HC Act is arbitrary. The internal committee of judges after detailed scientific study recommended enhancement only up to R50 lakh. How did this become R2 crore is a mystery? The government is committed to enacting the commercial courts Bill by which commercial dispute cases (which form the majority of the cases in the HC) up to R1 crore get retained in the HC. If after the enhancement of pecuniary jurisdiction, cases transferred to the district court are to get transferred to the HC on enactment of the commercial disputes Bill, there will be chaos in Delhi. We are talking about the lives of tens of lakhs of litigants. Passing the Delhi HC Bill in isolation and not together with the commercial courts Bill is Tughlakian and will spell disaster for the litigating public.”