OH, WHAT A TERRIBLE MORNING!

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By Morning and evening courts were set up in Maharashtra to help clear the huge backlog of pending cases. In reality, they are doing just the opposite. Velly Thevar finds out why
  • Published 20.04.11
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When Jayesh Vithlani, a young lawyer from Mumbai, was approached by friends to take up two cases of cheques bouncing in September last year, he agreed because the cases were to come up in the Borivali court in the northern suburb of Mumbai. “I live in Borivali and I thought Section 138 (which deals with matters like cheque bouncing) cases under the Negotiable Instruments Act would not take much of my time.” What he hadn’t bargained for was that his cases would get transferred to the morning courts. A frustrated Vithlani is still waiting for his cases to come up for hearing.

That’s because the morning court in Borivali is yet to convene! First, the magistrate who was deputed to the court went on medical leave. Another magistrate who was supposed to preside over the cases did not do so because he did not receive a notification regarding this. “There is absolutely no movement since the time my cases went to the morning court,” rues Vithlani.

About eight months ago, looking at the burgeoning number of cases pending in the various courts of Maharashtra, the Bombay High Court decided to set up morning and evening courts to deal with minor offences.

Before that, in February, 2010, the Union government had sanctioned Rs 5,000 crore for the modernisation of courts in the country. The state of Maharashtra managed to corner a sizeable portion of the amount — some Rs 542 crore, out of which Rs 297 crore were set aside to establish morning and evening courts. Accordingly, last September the Bombay High Court issued a notification for setting up 124 morning courts and 200 evening courts across 20 locations in Maharashtra. The morning courts were to function between 8.30am and 10am while the evening courts were to conduct their business between 6pm and 8pm. It was decided that cases related to drunk driving, cheque bouncing and so on were to be dealt with in these courts and that they would be presided over by a retired judge below 65 years of age.

But if the object of setting up these courts was the speedy disposal of cases, that was not to be. For most lawyers in Maharashtra are bitterly opposed to these morning and evening courts. In their opinion these courts are simply not feasible. The Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa has, in fact, written to the Bombay High Court, pointing out that the hours are inconvenient for litigants and women who have to travel to and from distant areas. And last year, the District Bar Association of Nagpur even went on a strike to protest against these courts.

Says Prakash Shetty, a senior Mumbai-based lawyer, “Morning courts are simply not practical. Lawyers need time to study their brief and meet their clients. Besides, in a city like Mumbai where commuting to work can take hours, it is too much to expect the court staff to work for such long hours.”

Shetty argues that courts are not like hospitals, which can function 24x7. “Lawyers rush to the courts by day, meet the clients and prepare the briefs in the evening. If they are to argue cases in evening courts, when do they accomplish this task,” he asks.

Vithlani echoes that view. “I am in my office until 10.30 in the night, preparing briefs and meeting clients. After that I travel back to Borivali and reach home by 12.30am and go to sleep by 1am. Then to reach court at 8.30am the next day is next to impossible for me.”

Indeed, such is the sorry state of affairs in these courts that one morning court in Mumbai starts its session as late as 11am! The court staff who are supposed to come at 8am do not turn up till 9am.

However, though Maharashtra seems hard put to make a success of its morning and evening courts, the experiment has worked in some states. For example, it has been quite a success in Gujarat, which was the first state to set up evening courts as early as November, 2006. Gujarat is also the only state where criminal cases are also taken up in the evening courts. Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Maharashtra, Goa and Orissa have also introduced morning and evening courts.

Apart from their objective of clearing the backlog of pending cases, morning and evening courts, say some lawyers, also give young legal professionals an opportunity to hone their skills. Of course, none of these apparent advantages seems to have cut any ice with lawyers in Maharashtra.

Still, Maharashtra’s legal authorities have taken some steps to deal with the opposition to these courts. The principal district and sessions judge in Nagpur relaxed the condition for hearing cases during these hours after receiving instructions to that effect from the Bombay High Court. Moreover, lawyers and litigants are informed in advance if their cases are being transferred to these courts and given the option of getting it heard elsewhere if they so wish.

Welcoming this decision, Varsha Rokade, ex-secretary of the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa, says that the Bombay High Court was gracious to accept the opinion of the lawyers and make the evening courts optional. “The convenience of both the lawyer as well as that of the litigant should be taken into account.”

It may yet take a while to iron out the manifold problems that beset morning and evening courts in Maharashtra. Until then, lawyers like Vithlani can only wait patiently for their cases to get a hearing.