The Chief Justice of India (CJI), R.M. Lodha, seems to be on a crusade against what he calls the “culture of adjournments” in Indian courts.
Early this week, the CJI told a gathering of lawyers in Jodhpur that like medical facilities, the justice system should function 365 days a year. Stressing the need for speedier dispensation of justice, Lodha said that in the Supreme Court (SC), high courts and subordinate courts, adjournments should be allowed only when they are absolutely necessary and this could ensure “acceleration in delivery of justice”.
This is not the first time the CJI has come down heavily on adjournments that are often regarded as a considerably significant factor leading to the humongous pendency of court cases across the country.
During a recent case hearing, Justice Lodha said that the practice of seeking adjournment of scheduled hearing of cases “at the drop of a hat” must be stopped. “Unless a lawyer falls very ill, requests for adjournment must not be made,” he said. He was responding to a request for adjournment of a scheduled hearing by Shivaji M. Jadhav, an apex court advocate, who is also the president of the Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association.
A recent report by the SC supported National Court Management System shows that about 19,000 judges, including 18,000 in trial courts, are coping with a pendency of 3 crore cases, resulting in a civil case continuing for around 15 years on an average. The total number of pending cases in Indian courts is expected to touch 15 crore by 2040.
And according to the monthly pending cases report of the apex court, out of the 63,843 pending matters dealt with last month, only 5,484 cases have been disposed of.
Litigants allege that both lawyers and judges are guilty of delaying justice — one by seeking adjournments and the other by allowing them. At times lawyers are found requesting adjournments on flimsy or outright absurd grounds, ranging from a lack of preparation to the death of a colleague. Two years ago, a Mumbai-based computer engineer-turned-judicial reform activist, Anil Gidwani, filed a PIL at the Bombay High Court against redundant adjournments. He asked for a stricter implementation of the 2002 Civil Procedure Code (CPC) amendment that caps the number of adjournments after hearing starts at three. Suffering frequent adjournments in his 15-year litigating career, he alleged that this law had never been followed in courts. His PIL was dismissed.
“Adjournments are the babies of senior, high profile lawyers who want to command higher fees at any cost by delaying the trial procedures,” says Avishek Goenka, a litigant and founder of a Calcutta-based organisation called Save Aam Admi, who frequently files PILs against a number of issues. “Justice Lodha should be commended for his directive on adjournments.”
The Central government too acknowledges the problem. In a National Litigation Policy Document, released as far back as in 2010, it stresses, “Accepting that frequent adjournments are resorted to by government lawyers, unnecessary and frequent adjournments will be frowned upon and infractions dealt with seriously.”
The legal fraternity doesn’t quite deny that adjournments are a bane of the system despite provisions such as the CPC amendment or CrPC Section 309 (1). The latter says, “In every inquiry or trial, the proceedings shall be held as expeditiously as possible, and in particular, when the examination of witnesses has once begun, the same shall be continued from day to day until all the witnesses in attendance have been examined, unless the court finds the adjournment of the same beyond the following day to be necessary for reasons to be recorded.”
Even the Supreme Court has from time to time referred to why adjournments should not be tolerated. Noting “the corrosive effect that adjournments can have on a litigation”, a 2013 Supreme Court ruling says, “The virtues of adjudication cannot be allowed to be paralysed by adjournments.”
In 2001, an apex court judgment notes, “Seeking adjournments for postponing the examination of witnesses who are present in court... is a dereliction of advocates’ duty to the court... The legal profession must be purified from such abuses of court procedures.”
Yet adjournments continue to be the norm rather than the exception in courts today. Even lawyers admit as much. “Although the CPC restricts the number of adjournments to three, such provisions are not observed in the Supreme Court and high courts,” says Adish C. Aggarwala, president, All India Bar Association, a body that seeks to uphold the tenets of our legal system and education.
Others feel that the problem is more acute in the lower courts. “In lower courts, judges are more liberal when it comes to allowing adjournments,” says Jadhav, who requested adjournment of a hearing in a case where Justice Lodha castigated the adjournment-seeking habit of a certain section of the legal fraternity. “In the Supreme Court, even if a matter is adjourned, the next in line will be dealt with and therefore judicial time is not really wasted.”
Jadhav puts the onus squarely on the competence of judges. “To abolish the culture of adjournments, we need more and more competent judges, mainly direct recruits — not promotees who rise through the ranks — from the bar who have a fair exposure to the intricacies of adjudication in higher courts,” he says. “We are therefore recommending more and more judiciary recruits from higher courts.”
Aggarwala also feels that a strong judiciary is the need of the hour. “It has been seen that lawyers do not seek adjournments when they see that the judges concerned are strict and loath to allow them,” he says. “On the other hand, in cases where judges are liberal, we have seen a preponderance of adjournments.”
Others beg to differ. “Adjournments have got nothing to do with the competence of judges,” says Murari Prasad Srivastava, a retired Calcutta High Court judge. “It is very difficult to make hard and fast rules to curtail adjournments — one cannot control unforeseen events that might lead to adjournments. So a judge will assess the reasons before allowing adjournments — it all depends on individual situations.”
He stresses that judges are overburdened with thousands of cases. “Pendency will be curtailed not by focusing on minor issues like adjournments but by limiting the number of cases per judge to say 10, as it happens in the West,” says Srivastava.
He adds that if a litigant feels that he or she is affected by adjournments, he or she can always approach the Bar Council.
In the context of adjournments, a 2001 Supreme Court judgment says, “Where on receipt of a complaint or otherwise a State Bar Council has reason to believe that any advocate on its roll has been guilty of professional or other misconduct, it shall refer the case for disposal to its disciplinary committee.”
Needless to say, the rules and rulings have so far had little effect in stemming the tide of adjournments. Will the Chief Justice of India’s censure in this regard change the status quo? That remains to be seen.