Court vacations in India need a rethink:The delivery of justice shouldn't suffer

Currently, the Indian Supreme Court works for 193 days on its judicial functions, while high courts in India function for around 210 days.
Currently, the Indian Supreme Court works for 193 days on its judicial functions, while high courts in India function for around 210 days.

Summary

  • While judges need a break, no doubt, court closures should not inconvenience litigants and stall dispute resolution. Reforms on this front will raise the quality of judgements and ensure speedier delivery of justice.

The Chief Justice of India (CJI), during the diamond jubilee celebration of the Supreme Court of India, recently remarked that an “adjournment culture" should give way to a “culture of professionalism" in court. “Let us begin the conversation on long vacations and whether alternatives such as flexi-time for lawyers and judges is possible," said Y.V. Chandrachud in the presence of the Prime Minister of India. Even the PM has voiced similar concerns earlier. It is now time to take this up seriously, particularly at the judiciary’s lower levels, so that the huge backlog of cases is reduced and people get justice.

In the 133rd Report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice on court vacations, it was recommended that instead of all judges going on vacations at one time, individual judges should take leave at different times, so that the country’s courts are constantly open, like any other public or private establishment.

The report states that the demand for doing away with vacations in courts is primarily based on the huge pendency of cases—evident from the latest data release that has documented a backlog of more than 41 million cases in Indian courts—as well as the inconvenience caused to litigants during such court closures. Further, the Law Commission’s 230th Report in 2009 had suggested that the number of working days of Indian judges should be increased, considering the huge backlog of cases.

Also read: We need judicial system reforms to ensure swift disposal of cases

If we trace the history of the vacation system, it turns out that it dates back to the era of British rule, under which the current system of courts in India was established back in 1860. These courts continue to function till this day. All the judges back in those days were British subjects with familial connections with their homeland in Europe. 

They would journey to and from India by sea, spending one month or so on the voyage to Britain, another month residing there, and then another on their return journey to the subcontinent. Consequently, they observed a three-month summer vacation, a practice that existed until transportation by air became widely available after World War II.

In this context, it’s essential that we analyse the court vacation system in other countries that were once under colonial rule, especially in Africa. The legal vacations in most West African countries start from 1 August to the end of September, with shorter breaks over Christmas and Easter of around 10 days each. Currently, Ghana is testing a system of running trial courts in two shifts, so that infrastructure does not become a handicap and the backlog is brought down.

On a lighter note, many judicial systems in Africa still follow colonial practices like wearing wigs. In India, we dropped these quaint hair-pieces soon after we attained independence on 15 August 1947.

In the United Kingdom, Court of Appeal judges and High Court judges, who still have to don wigs, are typically required to dedicate themselves to judicial duties for approximately 185-190 days annually during the legal year. Circuit and District judges are expected to preside over cases for a minimum of 210 days, with an optimal target ranging between 215 and 220 days per year. A few good practices that India can adopt from Western countries include staggered vacation periods for judges, as in any other occupations and work cultures, rather than a single month-long summer break.

Currently, the Indian Supreme Court works for 193 days on its judicial functions, while high courts in India function for around 210 days and trial courts for 245 days. In accordance with the Supreme Court Rules, 2013, the CJI has the authority to designate division benches to handle urgent miscellaneous and regular matters during summer vacations—which it does, providing relief in a few rare cases that cannot wait.

However, this provision does not detract from the fact that court vacations are not in consonance with the demands of a humane society dedicated to justice. Imagine police stations or hospitals, which work round the clock, being closed for certain hours—let alone for months—in spite of it being obvious that people may need immediate relief from them no matter what time and day it is.

Disputes are not raised by people unless they are inevitable. Many times, disputes get settled out of court. Recently, the CJI criticized judges for not delivering judgements for over 10 months after the arguments were heard. Is there any time limit for the announcement of judgements? It is time we considered setting one.

Also read: State-level litigation policies present a dismal picture

This is not to deny that vacations are needed for rejuvenation. It is plain that every judge or lawyer is entitled to annual leave, like in any other occupation. It is just that the establishment should not close, and certainly not for an extended period of time. The argument that judges and lawyers are in the most stressful professions is also misguided. There are many other professions that involve higher levels of stress. According to a survey by Goodall, surgeons are the most stressed, at No. 1 in its ranking table, while lawyers are at No. 14.

That said, although the tradition of vacations may hold historical importance, the country’s present judicial scenario necessitates a reconsideration of such practices to ensure effective operations, reduce case backlogs (so that the queue does not grow longer) and cut disruptions for litigants by making sure that Indian courts never stop functioning.

A work-life balance is needed for individual judges, which can well be achieved without courts taking breaks. Reforming such practices of the judiciary will raise the quality of judgements and work towards speedier justice for litigants.

Arima Pankaj of CUTS contributed to the article.

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