To say that March 2020 was extraordinary is passé. Nevertheless, as with all other institutions, it was a truly remarkable month for the Supreme Court of India too. First, the Court was closed for Holi vacation from 7 March to 15 March. Immediately after that, the spread of COVID-19 meant that the Court decided to function at a drastically reduced capacity from 16 March. Through follow up notifications on 23 March and 26 March, the Court decided to prune its business even further, taking up only extremely urgent matters and that too through the video-link mode.
Despite the tumultuous nature of the month gone-by, the Court made some critical interventions to tackle the problems thrown up by COVID-19. For one, it took suo motu cognizance of three matters of public importance – decongesting prisons and remand homes, administration of the Mid-Day Meal scheme, and extension of Limitation Period for all cases.
All the administrative and judicial developments from the Court in the aftermath of COVID-19 have been captured by us in this post and will continue to be updated.
The crisis thrown up by the pandemic also saw a number of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) interventions. Notably, a PIL was filed seeking relief for the migrant labourers stranded due to the lockdown. Apart from seeking a status report from the Union, the Court also made directions to ensure basic amenities for the stranded workers. Interestingly, in the same PIL, the Court noted that the scourge of fake news had led to the mass migration of labourers. In light of this, it directed the Central Government to come up with a daily bulletin to alleviate people’s doubts and suggested that all media entities carry the official version of COVID-19 related developments.
Just before the Court had shut for its Holi vacation, it took up the Judicial Vacancies in the Lower Courts and POCSO Implementation matters. Even after that, on 23 March, the Court took up Judicial Vacancies in the Lower Courts, upon an urgent request by the West Bengal State Government. The Court also pronounced its judgment on the reference question in the Article 370 case. More details below:
Article 370: On 2 March, the 5-judge bench hearing the Article 370 petitions rejected the request to refer the Article 370 petitions to a larger bench. The reference question had come up after Senior Advocates Dinesh Dwivedi and Sanjay Parikh argued that the Supreme Court in Sampat Prakash had given its decision without taking into account the law laid down in Prem Nath Kaul - both significant cases on Article 370. Such an oversight, they had submitted, called for a reference to a larger bench since the present bench was of the same strength as Sampath Prakash and Prem Nath Kaul benches and hence ill equipped to resolve any conflict between these decisions.
The Bench, in its 41-page order, held that there was no such oversight or conflict. It primarily gave two reasons for its decision. One, it observed that the circumstances in which these cases were decided were different. Two, the issues involved in them were completely different. Given this, there was no occasion for a conflict, held the Bench.
Judicial Vacancies in the Lower Courts: In October 2018, then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi took suo motu cognizance of judicial vacancies in the lower courts. The Court directed all High Courts and State Governments to submit reports of steps taken to fill judicial vacancies and build adequate judicial infrastructure. Till date, the Court has continued to monitor the matter on a roughly monthly basis.
The case was listed thrice in March – 5th, 6th and 23rd March. On all three occasions, the Bench comprising the Chief Justice and Justices BR Gavai and Surya Kant was primarily tasked with resolving the conflict between the West Bengal State Government and the High Court of West Bengal.
On 5 March, the High Court of West Bengal informed the Bench that despite recommending the names of judges for appointment, the State Government was yet to notify their appointments. To this, the State Government responded by saying that it had concerns about five of those who were recommended. In light of this, the Bench directed that background verification of these five be immediately completed. Following this, on 6 March, the Bench directed the State Law Minister to submit its objections to the Chief Justice of the High Court.
Finally, after the State Government moved for an urgent hearing, the Bench took up the matter again on 23 March. On that date, the Bench set an ultimatum for the State Law Ministry. It directed the Law Minister to meet the Chief Justice of the West Bengal High Court on 24 March. A failure to do so, the Court added, would result in the Chief Justice of the High Court being free to make any decision he considers appropriate.
In light of these developments, the Bench also amended the date to finalize the appointments to 24 March.
POCSO Implementation: In 2019, the Court took suo motu cognizance of the increasing number of POCSO cases and their poor disposal rates in courts. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012, or 'POCSO', aims to ensure speedy justice by establishing special procedures for reporting cases and instituting special courts to hear cases. It specifies that POCSO cases must be disposed of within a year of the offence being reported.
On 6 March, Justices Deepak Gupta and Aniruddha Bose took note of how various States were implementing the Court's earlier directions. It then listed the matter for 24 March to address the following issues: timelines for deciding cases, training for special public prosecutors and a scheme for payment of compensation to victims.
New on the Website
Other than tracking the Court, we have added a wide range of content to the website in March. We have added the updated biographies of Justices V Ramasubramanian, Deepak Gupta and Navin Sinha to the ‘Judges’ page. These biographies identify the important judgments they have authored and their brief summary.
In the ‘Court Data’ section, we first examined whether the Swine Flu outbreak in February affected the Court’s output during the period from 15 February to 15 March 2020. We did this by comparing the output for the same period last year.
Our second Court Data post was on the Court’s use of its suo motu jurisdiction. Given that the Court exercised its suo motu jurisdiction thrice in quick succession recently, we traced the development of this jurisdiction and whether it has been progressively increasing.
The final data-based post for the month looked at the translation initiative of the Court. Specifically, the post examined if there is a co-relation between how commonly a language is spoken and the likelihood of a judgment being translated into that language.
The ‘Desk’ section of the website continued to critically engage with the Court’s work. Other than our bi-weekly newsletters, we also had posts related to the 5-key judgments so far in 2020, the decision of Supreme Court to grant Permanent Commission to women in the Navy and the elevation of ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi to the Rajya Sabha.