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In the democratic process, Parliamentary Questions are important tools to hold ruling dispensations accountable for their policies. They also serve to bridge the gap between the common man and the government he might have helped elect, and are used to gauge the performance of a Member of Parliament.
Quite often, Question Hour is the most interesting part of a Lok Sabha or Rajya Sabha session. But apart from providing entertainment, the first hour of a session also reveals important information on how the government aims to tackle the problems faced by the people.
As the Winter Session of 2017 kicks off, we take a look at what kind of questions the Ministry of Law and Justice has had to face from MPs over the years.
Below are ten questions that have most frequently been asked in both Houses of Parliament over the last five years.
Pendency of Cases
This is one question that has been asked without fail in both Houses of Parliament, in every single session since 2011 at least. The latest figures reveal that there are around 2.95 crore cases pending across courts in the country. The National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) website reveals that 2.6 crore of these cases are languishing in lower courts, with Uttar Pradesh (61.4 lakh cases) and Maharashtra (33.1 lakh cases) accounting for over 36% of the total pendency. 10.3% of these cases are filed by women.
As per the NJDG statistics, there are 34.18 lakh cases pending across 22 high courts. 55,259 cases are pending in the Supreme Court as of November 1 of this year. The oldest pending matter in the Supreme Court was instituted in 1982. The longest pending matter in the high courts is a case from 1967, filed in the Patna High Court.
While answering questions regarding pendency, the Law Ministry invariably has to reveal what is being done in order to curb pendency. These answers usually contain the same spiel on promotion of ADR, increasing sanctioned strength of courts, repeal of laws, the ever-elusive National Litigation Policy, and so on.
Also among the most frequently asked Parliamentary Questions are those related to vacancies in the judiciary, the answers to which are a lot more accessible nowadays, thanks to the Department of Justice website.
As of December 1, there are 392 vacancies across 24 high courts, out of sanctioned strength of 1079. A little over 10% of these judges are women. The Supreme Court has 6 vacancies. According to an answer to a question raised in the 2017 monsoon session of the Rajya Sabha, 5,875 posts remain vacant in the subordinate judiciary, as of 2016.
Very often, MPs are interested in bringing corrupt/errant judges to justice and the mechanism in place for doing so. The answer to this question points in the direction of an in-house procedure for dealing with complaints against judges, undertaken by the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justices of high courts, for Supreme Court judges and high court judges respectively.
Perhaps Justice CS Karnan would disagree with this view, but then again, one might argue that he took things a little too far. Impeachment proceedings being the only action available against errant judges, various quarters of the legal fraternity had questioned the apex court’s decision to jail the former Calcutta High Court for contempt.
It is also often revealed by the Law Ministry that the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, introduced with a view to enforcing greater accountability in the judiciary, lapsed with the dissolution of 15th Lok Sabha.
Fast Track Courts
Another question that seems to be a common feature in all sessions is the status of Fast Track Courts for dispensing speedy justice. As per the latest reply, the 14th Finance Commission has endorsed the proposal to establish 1,800 Fast Track Courts for a period of five years for cases of heinous crimes, cases involving senior citizens, women, children, disabled and litigants affected with HIV AIDS and other terminal ailments, and civil disputes involving land acquisition and property/rent disputes pending for more than five years.
A total of Rs. 4,144 crore has been earmarked for these courts, of which there are 524 across the country. Details regarding pendency of cases in these courts are sketchy, and are at best a year old. There are 41,000 cases pending in FTCs in Uttar Pradesh, and 33,510 cases in West Bengal, as of 2016 stats.
Recently, the Supreme Court directed the Centre to frame a scheme for setting up Fast Track Courts to hear criminal cases against legislators. Pursuant to its directions, 12 Fast Track Courts will be set up to hear the 1,500-odd cases against criminal politicians by March 1 next year. A total of Rs. 7.8 crore will be spent to set up these courts, which are to dispose of all cases within a year.
Audio/Video Recording of Court Proceedings
Until very recently, the higher judiciary had not been in favour of allowing audio and video recording of court proceedings.
However, the Supreme Court Bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit has been batting for the same, while hearing a petition filed by Pradyuman Bisht. The Court earlier directed that at least in two districts in every State/Union Territory install CCTV cameras inside the courts. The order was later modified to include all districts. As the latest hearing in that case reveals, states are making good progress in ensuring that the Court’s orders are being followed.
Technology in Courts
Questions on this topic are often answered with the Centre waxing eloquent on its eCourts project, which to be fair, has progressed quite well. A few technical glitches aside, the websites of most district and subordinate courts are up and running. The eCourts app for case information on district and taluk courts was recently launched. The Law Ministry has also revealed that the eCourts Mission Mode Project is scheduled to culminate in 2019.
Further, video conferencing facilities have now been operationalized between 493 courts and corresponding 342 prisons during the years 2015-2017.
Use of Hindi and Regional Languages in Court
MPs have quite frequently asked whether Hindi and regional languages can be used in the Supreme Court and the high court. The response has been that as per Article 348(1) of the Constitution, English is the official language of the higher judiciary. However, Article 348(2) allows the Governor of a state, with prior approval from the President, to authorize use of Hindi/regional languages in court proceedings. Further, Section 7 of the Official Languages Act allows the Governor to allow Hindi/official state language to be used in judgments.
The use of Hindi has been authorized in the proceedings in the High Courts of the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. A most recent example of this was Justice Ramesh Chandra’s last judgment as a high court judge. The fact that the judgment was written in Hindi was hardly given any attention, given the references to cows as national animals and the unimpeachable virtue of peacocks in the judgment.
The Law Ministry has also stated that the Centre had taken up with the Supreme Court the proposals of the governments of Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka seeking the allowance of regional languages in the proceedings of their High Courts. However, the Full Court of the Supreme Court disapproved these proposals.
Renaming High Courts
This question has been featured constantly over the past few Parliamentary sessions, especially with regard to renaming of the Bombay High Court. The High Courts of Bombay, Madras and Calcutta were reportedly in the process of being renamed. As a response states,
“Since, the Indian High Courts Act, 1861 has been repealed, central legislation is required for changing in the name of Bombay High Court and Madras High Court which is at drafting stage. The Law Ministry has prepared a Cabinet note on a Bill changing the names of the High Courts.”
This Bill was slated to come up during the Monsoon Session of 2017, but never saw the light of day.
Judicial Appointments: MoP and Reservations
Ever since the Supreme Court’s NJAC judgment passed in 2015, questions regarding the status of the Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) have been quite frequent. The latest information, as per the Law Ministry’s reply in that the government has conveyed its views on the MoP, on August 3, 2016.
However, a lot has happened since then.
In March this year, the Centre forwarded a new MoP, which the Supreme Court Collegium did not agree with. In particular, the Collegium failed to be on the same page with the Centre as regards the National Security and Permanent Secretariat clauses. Despite the lack of consensus between the two bodies, judicial appointments seem to be going on after a long hiatus.
The Supreme Court itself has not been very clear on the issue. Recently, a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court disposed of the case relating to the delay in finalising the MoP. This, after a Division Bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit had taken serious note of the delay by the Central government. It now seems that the Court does not want to take it up of the judicial side.
Another question asked is with regard to reservations in the judiciary. The government has been requesting Chief Justices of the High Courts to give due consideration to suitable candidates belonging to SC/ST, OBC, other minorities, and women. Though there is no provision for reservation in theory, one can argue that things work quite differently in practice.
To the Collegium’s credit, appointments to the higher judiciary are more transparent, now that they have agreed to make their deliberations and resolutions public.
Retirement age of High Court judges
Over the years, there have been several calls to increase the retirement age of high court judges. In fact, the government has made attempts to change this by introducing the Constitution (One Hundred and Fourteenth Amendment) Bill, 2010, which provided for increasing the retirement age of High Court Judges from 62 to 65 years. After being referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, the Bill was recommended to be passed in its present form without delay. However, it lapsed with the dissolution of the 15th Lok Sabha.