Surgical Strike at a Chronic Ailment
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Surgical Strike at a Chronic Ailment

Bar & Bench

Somasekhar Sundaresan

It was a judgment waiting to be written. The conduct of the government in litigating on issues long-decided by courts and clogging the courts, even while mouthing platitudes about how the government must not indulge in frivolous litigation, has been called out by the Supreme Court in a crisp and precise judgment.

The seven-page order, imposing costs of Rs 100,000 on the government (yet again), is a must-read not only for every government department at the Centre and the states, but more importantly for every regulator that doubles up as civil courts and generates litigation by writing orders, even on closed issues, merely because the parties before it are different. Remarkably, in the order (passed in a government service litigation — titled Union of India & Others vs Pirthwi Singh & Others the Supreme Court has pressed the right button by observing that India suffers badly in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings primarily because of such conduct by government agencies.

A quick look at the facts would show what is regular and well-expected from the government, state agencies and regulators. The Supreme Court came to dismiss a bunch of appeals filed by the Union of India in December 2017. The very same issues came up again in a new appeal by the Union of India in 2018, and that appeal was dismissed in March 2018. When dismissing this appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the appeal in question was unnecessary and vexatious since many cases had already been decided in the same manner. To ensure this is taken seriously, costs of Rs 100,000 were imposed on the Central government.

The appeal now dealt with by the Supreme Court had agitated the same issue and was filed in March 2018. The government took no steps to withdraw the appeal despite the earlier misadventure having invited strictures and costs.

The judgment notes: “The Union of India must appreciate that by pursuing frivolous or infructuous cases, it is adding to the burden of this Court and collaterally harming other litigants by delaying hearing of their cases through the sheer volume of numbers. If the Union of India cares little for the justice delivery system, it should at least display some concern for litigants, many of whom have to spend a small fortune in litigating in the Supreme Court.”

The judgment quotes from a 2010 document titled, “National Litigation Policy” as part of a pompously-named “National Legal Mission to Reduce Average Pendency Time from 15 Years to 3 Years”. This document, made under the UPA government has been adopted by the current NDA government with a newer version in 2015, followed by an “Action Plan” formulated in 2017.

One of the principles supposed to have been adopted is that the government would be an efficient and responsible litigant. One of the listed traits of an “efficient litigant” is that “bad cases are not needlessly persevered with” while a trait of a “responsible litigant” is “that litigation would not be resorted to for the sake of litigating”. Observing that that removal of unnecessary government cases would save valuable court time that could be spent in resolving other pending cases, the document notes that the “easy approach” of adopting the line of “let the court decide” must be eschewed.

The Supreme Court notes: “…under the garb of ease of doing business, the judiciary is being asked to reform. The boot is really on the other leg.” Having noted the Ease of Doing Business rankings (India ranks among the lowest in contract enforcement year after year, despite the gaming coupled with reform in other areas), the court has really touched upon a critical area. While government litigates blindly, regulatory agencies, that are mini-republics with the legislative, executive and judicial functions rolled up into one entity, are the worst. Regulatory agencies are themselves given the powers of the civil courts and they start the process of prosecuting and ruling all on their own. Often, the quasi-judicial rulings of regulators are upheld in appellate tribunals but many an order gets set aside. These are routinely appealed. Worse, even when earlier rulings are available, regulators persist with repeating their overruled rulings hoping that appeals to the higher courts (in most legislation, it is directly to the Supreme Court) would lead to different outcomes. Even when the court has not stayed the tribunal’s rulings, regulators continue to ignore appellate decisions. There are even cases where a newly appointed regulatory official wants to leave his mark and re-interprets decades-old jurisprudence, which despite failure in appeal, is further carried in appeal.

In the case at hand, the Supreme Court also noted that the government was blowing up money on 10 lawyers, including an Additional Solicitor General and a Senior Advocate, expending tax payers’ monies wastefully. This too is typical and par for the course with regulators. Engaging senior law officers of the government, and senior private lawyers with respectable names and standing, is the easiest way to project that the frivolous appeal has something unique on facts that would warrant ignoring earlier closed decisions, and overturn, at times, decades of jurisprudence. In the courts of many judges, appeals by regulators perceived to be “experts”, are admitted for the asking, while appeals by private litigants are put to a higher standard, often disposed of at the stage of admission — the wrong assumption being that regulators are more responsible in deciding what to appeal.

The apex court’s observations are a reminder of one serious facet of what ails the justice delivery system. Our regulators have to go beyond procedural reform and gaming of processes to improve rankings on Ease of Doing Business. Conducting a thorough 100-percent audit of all pending appeals filed by regulators to decide what ought to be withdrawn, would be a good way to start.

This column was first published under the title Without Contempt in the editions of Business Standard dated May 24, 2018

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