Considering how 25-30 million cases are pending at the Supreme Court, high courts and subordinate courts, the apex court coming down hard on frivolous litigation that clogs the judicial process is welcome. The court, on March 1, imposed a R5 lakh penalty on a litigant who was stalling an eviction order passed by the Bombay High Court by filing multiple applications with the apex court. According to the Daksh State of Indian Judiciary report, delays in court processes—and frivolous litigation is a leading cause of this—costs the country 0.5% of its GDP in lost man-hours, cost of litigation, etc. Not surprising, then, that there have been several attempts to fix this.
The Maintainability of Public Interest Litigation Rules, outlined by the Supreme Court in 2010, spoke of making it compulsory for petitioners to first disclose their credentials and motives to the court’s registry, which was to then decide if the PIL could be entertained. It also spoke of making petitioners compulsorily deposit an “appropriate” amount with the court to be paid as “compensation” in case a PIL is found to be “vexatious, frivolous or mala fide”.
In 2010, the Bombay High Court had ordered the litigating party to pay a R40-lakh fine after dismissing its PIL against a residential tower in the city.
Though the apex court subsequently reduced the fine, it left the High Court’s rebuke intact. The same year, the Calcutta High Court had also ruled that exemplary costs need to be imposed on filers of frivolous litigation. In 2005, the Law Commission proposed a law against vexatious litigation—Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, have enacted such laws. The Madhya Pradesh law, the newest among these, provides that the state’s advocate general can move the High Court to have a litigant declared ‘vexatious’; once the court finds merit in the charge, it will mean that the litigant’s ongoing pleas will be dismissed and she will not be allowed to file any criminal or civil proceedings in the High Court or lower courts.
While that seems a good idea, it is open to abuse and governments can use this to check whistleblower litigants. Which is why, while the media and civil society have to keep monitoring such cases, the Supreme Court would do well to also keep an eye on such abuse, possibly with the help of an amicus curae. Despite the state’s laws and individual courts imposing fines, the flood of frivolous litigation has, by and large, remained unchecked. So, courts across the country would do well to pay heed to the SC’s words in the March 1 judgment: “It is the duty of every court to firmly deal with such situations. The imposition of exemplary costs is a necessary instrument …”