Expressing serious concern over the increasing corrupt practice especially in lower courts, the Supreme Court has said that unscrupulous litigants cannot be allowed to even think of indulging in “bench hunting” or “forum-shopping” to get favourable orders and such “deprecable conduct” in the field of law “will eventually shake people’s confidence in the Indian justice system.”
“Bench hunting” refers to a bid by a litigant, represented and aided by its lawyers, to manage his/her matter being listed and heard by a particular judge or a bench for ensuring a favourable order. Even litigants write bogus complaints to the Chief Justice of India to remove a judge from a particular case.
Laying down firm guidelines to check the menace, the apex court said if a petition filed by a person comes before a particular judge entrusted with the task of hearing bails and he/she dismisses it, all subsequent bail pleas by same petitioner should also come before the same judge unless his roster has been changed, is on long leave, has been transferred or has retired. The petition can at no cost be heard by a second judge when the original judge is available, said the bench.
“If successive bail applications on the same subject are permitted to be disposed of by different judges, there would be conflicting orders and a litigant would be pestering every judge till he gets an order to his liking, resulting in the credibility of the court and there would be wastage of courts’ time. Judicial discipline requires that such matters must be placed before the same judge, if he is available.”
Referring to the “principle of judicial decorum, discipline and propriety,” the judges said that “…unless such principle is adhered to, there is enormous possibility of forum-shopping which has no sanction in law and definitely, has no sanctity. If the same is allowed to prevail, it is likely to usher in anarchy, whim and caprice and in the ultimate eventuate shake the faith in the adjudicating system,” the court said, while hearing an appeal filed by an accused, in a cheating case involving R1.5 crore, against a Delhi High Court order cancelling his anticipatory bail on the ground that he had indulged in “bench hunting” in the Saket court. Delhi-based Jagmohan Bahl, accused of criminal breach of trust, misappropriation of money and cheating a prospective property buyer, was first denied anticipatory bail by a sessions judge.
The issue had hogged headlines early this year when senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, now the Supreme Court Bar Association President, had made an accusation that had stunned everyone. He had alleged that “bench hunting” was rampant in the apex court too, forcing the then Chief Justice RM Lodha to initiate a probe. The senior lawyer had alleged that a property matter—HK Sudhakara vs M/s Metropolis and Hotels and Others—was “inappropriately” tagged with an unrelated matter being heard by another court.
Even senior Maharashtra Congress leader Kripashankar Singh had invited the Supreme Court’s ire for mentioning his plea in a corruption case before a different bench after getting the same withdrawn from the court’s mentioning list one day before. It had rapped his senior lawyer, now one of the top law officers, saying “such practice” was unacceptable and the counsel had a duty towards the court as law officers to prevent such type of “bench hunting” efforts.
Terming the trend as “unfortunate and disturbing,” legal experts say that the alleged practice of forum shopping in the highest institutions of justice has been there for a while and faith is gradually getting eroded.
Even former Chief Justice Altamas Kabir had courted serious allegations when the Sahara-Sebi case was heard by his bench while the case was pending before another bench. Eyebrows were also raised when the petitions by Bharti Airtel chief Sunil Mittal and Essar promoter Shashi Ruia in the 2G spectrum allocation case were heard by the Kabir-led bench even as the main case was pending before another bench.
Stating that the practice of bench hunting has been admitted by the judges in some of their orders and observations, another lawyer Vivek Bishnoi said that the alarming trend has been started by our high-paid lawyers for their ability to get a case listed before a favourable bench.
Welcoming the guidelines, SC lawyer MR Shamshad said that “the bench hunting is one of the many malpractices happening in our courts and there is a need to curb such anti-institutional trends.” However, he added that there could be circumstances where judges themselves have interest in the matter and any request in such situations for their recusal cannot be questioned.