12 Suo Moto Cases Noticed from Media Reports, of 46 [1990-2021]
As an offshoot of its unique PIL petitions, the SC has also taken up cases by their own notice, without any petition being filed.
The Supreme Court of India, as an offshoot of its unique Public Interest Litigation petitions, has also taken up cases ‘suo moto’. This means they take up cases by their own notice, without any petition being filed, or interest being brought before them.
While such a power is granted by s. 23 of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971 for contempt of court, the use of the procedure in writ or review jurisdiction has been novel. It developed from the relaxation of procedure when considering PILs. The first instance is often considered to be in the Sunil Batra case. The procedure for suo moto petitions was formalised only on August 14 by the adoption of Order 38, Rule 12(1)(a) in the Supreme Court Rules, 2013.
Data from 1990- 2018 is taken from Marc Galanter & Vasujith Ram, ‘Suo Motu Intervention and the Indian Judiciary’ and Chapter 4 in Rosenberg et al (eds), A Qualified Hope (CUP 2019). This data was manually sourced from various reports, which as authors note, is prone to some human error. Especially because until the 2010s, the Court did not count its suo moto petitions separately. Data from 2018-May 2021 has been taken from the Supreme Court of India’s website.
In this post, we look at the basis on which the Court took ‘suo moto’ cognisance in cases from 1990-2021.
The suo moto procedure is exercised on the basis of the Court taking notice of a particular issue. In the early use of this procedure, the Court would lay out the source of the information based on which they took notice of an issue.
Notably, a majority of these cases were taken up on the basis of particular media reports. However, over the last 2 years, particularly in cases involving COVID, the Court has not mentioned the source of its notice. Most of these are counted as ‘topics of national conversation’ (10 cases) where the facts of the issue are very well known and almost ubiquitous.
However, in 3 cases, even where the facts were not very well known, the Court has taken up suo moto cases without mentioning the source. This was for the issue of children falling into borewells (2014), children taking part in the Shaheen Bagh protests (2020) and for expeditious trials in cheque dishonour cases (2020).
There has also been an increase in the trend of taking up cases during other proceedings. 2 cases were converted from applications by a petitioner into suo moto cases in 1998 and 2002. However, the other 2 converted cases and the 5 cases taken up during proceedings of another matter, were all in the period between 2018-2021.
Letters are another common source of information for taking notice (7 cases). Three of these have included letters from State bodies: the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Central Administrative Tribunal and the Department of Justice.
There have been 3 unique circumstances to initiate suo moto cases. One involves the Solicitor General urging the Court due to an accusation of sexual harassment against the Chief Justice. In another instance, the Court took notice on the basis of a social media post by a retired colleague of theirs, J Markandey Katju. The Court was also delivered files physically by a victim of a crime, when the bench was sitting in open court.
Click here for our post on the number and kind of suo moto petitions.