In Just 5 Months, SC conducted 55 CB Hearings
The SC has conducted a remarkable 55 Constitution Bench hearings in just 5 months. Why does this matter? SCO investigates.
Gauri: Hello everyone, I’m Gauri Kashyap,
Spandana: and I am Sai Spandana.
Gauri: and this is SCO Explains. Today, we are here to talk about something that has been happening in the Court this year, that we haven’t seen in a long time. The Court has been consistent in listing and hearing constitution bench cases and has put out lots of big judgements on animal rights, separation of powers, defection, and more.
Spandana: The data of the constitution bench activity this year in court is also quite impressive. In just about 5 months, there have been 55 hearings over 16 different cases, and 13 CB Judgements have been delivered! But why does this matter? Doesn’t the Court always have hearings and deliver judgments?
Gauri: It’s true, the Court, in benches of 2 or 3 Judges, hears cases every day, and naturally, lots of judgements come out. But Constitution Benches hear cases where there is a big question of law that requires the interpretation of the Constitution. So this big bench will normally consist of 5, 7, or 9 judges who sit together to hear cases. So because Constitution Benches have such a big responsibility, most of the time its topics like religion, politics, democracy, fundamental rights of people like you and me—it’s issues like this that get discussed before these big benches.
Now for the last few years, the Court has received a lot of criticism for becoming, if I can call it that, a Supreme Appellate court. This is because it’s been mostly hearing appeals on judgements from high courts or lower courts and not really hearing constitution bench cases. Particularly during Chief Justice NV Ramana’s tenure, which was about 1.5-years, there was almost not a single constitution bench case that was heard. It received some criticism for sticking to the so called “safe topics”. When CJI Lalit took over for his 2-and-a-half-month tenure, there was almost a militant approach to bringing back Constitution Benches. Literally, the night before he took oath, the SC put out a list of some 25 cases that they would dust off and revive and hear again. It seems that under Chief Justice Chandrachud’s tenure,this effort has carried forward. Now, as I understand it, you put together some data on this topics. Could you tell us a little bit about the constitution bench activities in this year particularly?
Spandana: Right off the bat, the thing that stands out the most is the number of cases itself. They’ve conducted over 55 Constitution bench hearings in just 5 months. This is spread across 16 different cases. Of these, 9 times, benches were assembled for judgement pronouncements. So this means the bench will deliver or read out the operative part of a judgement. In the other 7 cases, substantive hearings were conducted, which is when the Court hears arguments from all parties.
Gauri: So we’ll get to the judgements in a second, I just want to focus on hearings for a minute here. You said 7 cases were heard in the duration of this year so far. How did the Court divide its time?
Spandana: Well the Maharashtra MLA disqualification case…
Gauri: This is the Shiv Sena rebellion in Maharashtra.
Spandana: Yes. It concerned all the petitions in the Shiv Sena rebellion, and it was heard for the longest time. It was spread across 14 hearings. This takes up about 25% of the total Constitution Bench hearings this year.
The hearings for queer marriage equality come second, with 10 days of hearings, accounting to about 18% of the time the court spent on this particular case, by Court I mean the Constitution Bench of course. Next, an arbitration case, to decide if a group of companies doctrine applies to arbitration cases in India, took place across 5 hearings. The case to decide who has power in the NCT of Delhi also had 5 hearings. Next, the Union’s curative petition asking for additional compensation for the Bhopal Gas Tragedy victims had a total of 4 hearings.
Gauri: Right, so in the group of doctrines case and the marriage equality case, hearings have been completed now, right?
Spandana: Yes, and judgements in these cases are reserved and they’re expected sometime after the Court summer vacation. Justice Bhat who was on the Bench for the marriage equality case it set to retire in October this year, so the judgement should come before that.
Gauri: Yes, speaking of judgements, now, you mentioned that 13 judgements came out. This in itself is quite something, right? Particularly because it’s 13 constitution bench cases. I think the last time we saw a flurry of activity and multiple Constitution bench Judgements was in 2019 with big cases like Sabarimala, Aadhar and so on, right?.
Spandana: Yeah and this year, some of these cases that got judgements were pending for well over 10 years. In fact, the oldest case is the excommunication of Dawoodi Bohra members which was heard 36 years after it was first initiated. The issue itself had come up before the court in the 50s and 60s then, in 1986, this particular case was filed. It was first referred to a CB in 2004 and now 19 years later, the Court completed hearings. I suppose there’s still full closure in the case though, because its been tagged with the Sabarimala petitions and has been referred to a 9 Judge Bench.
Gauri: And that in itself has been pending for a good number of years now.
Spandana: Yes but this list also has some young cases, like the Maharashtra MLA Disqualification case, which was filed just in June last year. The hearings happened over February and March this year and the judgement was delivered on May 11th. So that’s a pretty quick constitution bench judgement to have come. The main focus here is that a lot of people criticising Constitution benches say that at one time 5 or more judges are stuck in one case. So how would they tackle the mountain of other cases that are pending before the Court? But interestingly so far, in the past 5 months the Court has heard all of these constitution bench cases, but we’ve seen that on average pendency has been dropping by 400 cases every month.
Gauri: Just to clarify to our viewers, that doesn’t mean its cleared 400 cases, it means that it is cleared a lot more, but considering the fact that while it’s clearing cases, new cases are also being filed, this is a net figure left at the end of the month. So at the end of the month pendency number is less by 400.
Spandana: Right! Exactly. So maybe sitting in constitution benches doesn’t really make the court’s other functions suffer as many expected.
Gauri: Certainly so far, it looks like it. Well, I think that about wraps up our review of the Constitution Bench cases and judgements this year. Thank you breaking the data down for us! Spandana’s Court Data on this topic is available on SCobserver.in.
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