By Sanjay Raman Sinha
The current flashpoint between the government and the judiciary relates to holidays as well. On December 15, 2022, Law Minister Kiren Rijiju made a case in the Rajya Sabha for a new system to appoint judges and showed his concern about pendency of cases. He also commented on long vacations of courts, asserting that it hampers the justice delivery system.
A day after he spoke, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud made a pointed remark that there would be no vacation bench during the Christmas period (which usually is the case, unless specially required). In fact, Rajeev Shukla, Congress MP, had asked about the working hours of courts and the law minister gave a detailed reply to it. He said: “As per the information provided by the Supreme Court of India, during the last three years, the average number of court working days of the Supreme Court were 224 (2019), 217 (2020) and 202 (2021).”
The average work days of the apex court per year works out to 214 days. Summer vacation accounts for 45 days; winter vacation, 15 days and Holi holiday is for one week. During Dussehra and Diwali, the Court closes for five days each. With 70,000 cases in the apex court, the backlog is backbreaking. In this context, long breaks assume significance.
The Supreme Court Rules, 2013, hold that the “period of summer vacation shall not exceed seven weeks and the length of the summer vacation and the number of holidays for the court and the offices of the court shall be such as may be fixed by the Chief Justice and notified in the official Gazette so as not to exceed one hundred and three days”. Clearly there is a mismatch between the Supreme Court rules and the prevalent leave scenario. The rules stipulate a maximum of 103 holidays yearly, but the yearly average of vacations works out to 214 days.
The judiciary has justification for these long leaves. A judge has long working hours, he has to study cases prior to hearings and write judgments. The stress level of judges is high. In an interview with India Legal just after his retirement, former Chief Justice UU Lalit said: “A Supreme Court doctor told me that if a judge comes with X ailment, then by the time he goes out of court, he has X plus Y ailments. It is the sheer pressure of work. It is the type of job we are supposed to do and exposed to which begets stress and ailments. Suppose I have 70 matters to be read in the day, then the first casualty is my morning walk.”
The long vacations are a British-era practice which has continued. Summers were hard for Britishers and they took long leaves. The administration and judiciary manned by British personnel spent their summers in the cooler environs of hills. During December, Christmas was a major celebratory festival which translated into another set of leave.
Rule 4(1) of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, says: “The Court shall sit in two terms annually, the first commencing from the termination of the summer vacation and ending with the day immediately preceding such day in December as the Court may fix for the commencement of the Christmas and New Year holidays and the second commencing from the termination of the Christmas and New Year holidays and ending with the commencement of the summer vacation.”
Rule 4(2) says: “The period of the summer vacation shall not exceed seven weeks.”
The Justice Malimath Committee, set up in 2000, had suggested that the leave period should be reduced to 21 days to take care of pendency. It suggested that the Supreme Court work for 206 days and High Courts for 231 days every year. In 2009, the Law Commission had suggested that holidays should be reduced to at least 10 to 15 days and Court working hours should be increased by at least half an hour.
Various chief justices have also tried to streamline the vacation module of the apex court. In 2014, Chief Justice RM Lodha had suggested keeping the Supreme Court, High Courts and trial courts open throughout the year. Former Chief Justice TS Thakur had suggested holding Court during holidays, if parties and lawyers mutually agree.
Then, there is the issue of vacation benches. These are benches which can be formed by the chief justice during summer and winter holidays to hear urgent matters. Rule 6 of Order II of the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, provide that the “Chief Justice may appoint one or more Judges to hear during summer vacation or winter holidays all matters of an urgent nature which under these rules may be heard by a Judge sitting singly, and, whenever necessary, he may likewise appoint a Division Court for the hearing of urgent cases during the vacation which require to be heard by a Bench of Judges”.
For a long time, no winter vacation bench was extant. In 2017, Chief Justice Dipak Misra set up two winter vacation benches. He was also the first chief justice to head a vacation bench, thus giving importance to vacation benches.
Supreme Court lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay expressed concern about long court holidays in a petition he filed. Speaking to India Legal, Upadhyay said: “There are about five crore cases pending at all levels of the judiciary. If we take six members per family, including parents, then 30 crore of the population is harassed by pending cases. Pendency is related to procedural and administrative faults. Procedural delays drag cases. This makes judges case-weary and leads to burnout. That is why the demand for vacation was raised. However, if we keep the number of working days per year at 250 (and 115 days of leave), streamline procedures, weed out outdated laws, penalise frivolous pleas and install an Indian Judicial Service for inducting better quality judges, then pendency can be managed and judges can have respite.”
The moot point is: will decreasing holidays increase the productivity of courts? Will overstressed judges be able to handle more work without adequate period of recuperation and rest? Optimising judges’ strength by a quicker appointment process may be one solution.
Rijiju’s statement during Independence Day celebrations organised by the SCBA completes the cycle of controversy. He had said that “an Indian judge handles 40-50 cases per day and this workload is comparable to no other country”.
So where does this leave the overworked judges? If they are indeed overworked, why delay judicial appointments and why the hue and cry over vacations?