Long SC Vacations: Wasteful or Crucial for Quality of Justice?

With 68,000+ cases pending at the SC, many criticise it for its 6-7 week summer vacation. This break, however, might be crucial for its work

Hello, everyone! Welcome to SCO Explains. I’m Gauri Kashyap, and we’re going to be talking about whether it’s normal for judges of the Supreme Court to take long summer vacations as they do. This question has been asked, debated and fought over a lot, especially in India, which has a high number of pending cases in our courts.

In fact, at this year’s India Today Conclave, Journalist Rahul Kanwal was interviewing Chief Justice D. Y. Chandrachud and asked,

“There are quite a few people who think hamare judges chutti bohot lete hain. The judges, the courts are shut for way too long. Given especially the pendency. How do you respond to this general sense in society that judges are off for too long? And how do you think we can reduce pendency?

Okay, I’m really thankful to you for asking me this question. 

I thought you’d be angry with me for asking.

No, this really it’s a very serious issue and I must answer this as candidly as possible.”

The Chief almost seemed relieved, to have finally had a chance to have his say on this topic. He armed himself with statistics from top courts around the world, and began to explain the ‘serious issue.’ So he said that the hours spent in court between 10:30 A.M. to 04:00 P.M. were a ‘fraction of the work’ judges do. The rest of the time they read and prepare for around 40 to 60 cases heard each day in every courtroom. Judges typically dictate judgments on Saturdays, and use Sundays to prepare for the coming week. He said,

“So, without exception, and I’m not speaking for myself, without exception, every judge of the Supreme Court works for seven days in a week.”

Now, the Supreme Court of India is in session around 200 days a year. It typically takes a week off in March for Holi, a summer vacation of about 6-7 weeks in May and June, about 2 weeks in October for Dussehra and Diwali, and another 2 weeks in December for Christmas. The exact number of days, of course, changes every calendar year.

CJI Chandrachud’s, eagerness to give this clarity, may stem from the fact that judges have been criticised time and again for the amount of vacation days that they have. Most recently, members of a standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice stated that long vacations impede speedy disposal of cases. Calling it a ‘colonial concept’ many members of Parliament view long vacations as a contributing factor to the startling pendency of cases in India. With 68,745 cases pending as the court closed in May, this concern might not be without cause.

Last December, that is 2022, former Law Minister Kiren Rijiju commented that long vacations were inconvenient to ‘justice seekers.’ In March this year, 2023, however, in the same India Today Conclave that we saw the Chief in, he said,

“judges require holidays due to their constant engagement with the judicial work and administrative works. They have a huge mental pressure. They required to release those pressure by going out with family and for the vacation— absolutely okay.”

In both their speeches, Chief Justice Chandrachud and Mr. Rijiju compared India’s top court to its foreign counterparts. The Indian Supreme Court is scheduled to assemble throughout the year, and like I said, hears cases for about 200 days. Any break in Supreme Court proceedings comes in the form of vacations. In contrast, the US Supreme Court is scheduled to assemble for only 80 to 100 days a year. The Australian High Court assembles for about 100 to 110 days a year. And the Supreme Court of Singapore is in session for 145 days a year. The UK Supreme Court is very similar to ours and sits roughly the same number of days.

Now, there’s a reason why I’ve been saying that they are ‘scheduled to assemble’, right? See, in all the other jurisdictions, for example, the US, the Supreme Court is not supposed to sit all year. They are scheduled to work only about 80 days. In contrast, the Indian Supreme Court is scheduled to sit all year, which is why these arguably long breaks may be needed. On the other hand, it’s also true that SCOTUS is dealing with a very different workload—on average, about 7000 to 7500 cases are filed there every year. The Indian Supreme Court, on the other hand, receives 30,000 fresh cases a year on average. This is comparing from 1950 to now. So to tackle this kind of load, the court may have to function for longer than other courts. But the Chief Justice believes that this is not just about numbers, right? He talks about the quality of justice.

“But another thing which we must bear in mind is judging is not about just disposing cases. It’s not just about the statistic. It’s about thinking through your cases. It’s about reading the law, reading about where the law is going in other jurisdictions, thinking about where you want our society to be in terms of the output which you are going to produce. So unless you give your judges time to introspect, reflect, think about the work which you are going to do, you’re not going to have quality of justice.”

So where does the balance lie? How do we give our judges, who deal with these really important, arguably stressful cases some time to wind down, think and relax? How do we ensure that this pile of swiftly rising pending cases are also dealt with effectively?

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