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BRP Bhaskar: A chilling message to litigants
February 14, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The Supreme Court sent a chilling message to public interest litigants last week by imposing fines on two persons for filing frivolous petitions and asking a third one to establish his bona fides or face similar action.

Ravindra Singh, a member of the Bihar Assembly, had approached the apex court with a petition questioning the veracity of an article published in a Hindi publication in the 1990’s after being turned down by the Patna High Court. It threw out the petition and asked him to pay a fine of Rs 1 million.

Chief Justice JS Khehar who pronounced the judgment apparently took into account the fact that Ravindra Singh had declared assets of more than Rs 9.34 million when he filed nomination papers in the 2015 Assembly election.

Justice Khehar imposed a smaller fine on a retired teacher from Maharashtra who had challenged a Gujarat government circular on reservation in school jobs. A car mechanic of Madurai, who filed a petition about a hospital in Thanjavur building an additional floor, was told to establish his locus standi in the matter at the next hearing to avoid penal costs.

“Every day we waste precious judicial time by going through voluminous frivolous petitions. These busybodies must be stopped,” the Chef Justice said.

The Supreme Court has on its roster about 61,000 pending cases and Justice Khehar is keen to bring the number down. Elimination of frivolous petitions will surely help to achieve the goal. But the court must take care not to scare away those who approach it genuinely concerned about a bad situation.

Under the system left behind by the British, only an aggrieved person had the right to approach the courts for a legal remedy. This limitation was overcome four decades ago when the Supreme Court allowed Kapila Hingorani, a lawyer, to take up the case of Hussaianara Khatoon and other undertrial prisoners rotting in jails in Bihar. Her effort resulted in the release of not only Hussaianara Khatoon but about 40,000 undertrial prisoners across the country, and a grateful society hailed her as the Mother of Public Interest Litigation.

The Supreme Court witnessed a phase of judicial activism when VR Krishna Iyer, who was a judge in the 1970s, and PN Bhagwati, who was the Chief Justice in the 1980’s, widened the scope of PIL to render justice to the poor who lacked the resources to approach the court directly.

There were occasions when courts treated complaints received on postcards as writ petitions or took suo motu action on the basis of newspaper reports.

Over a period a large body of non-governmental organisations and individuals specialising in PILs arose all over the country. Not all of them were actuated by considerations of public good. Some were seeking personal glory through the publicity they could attract. This prompted some judges to argue that judicial activism had gone too far.

The Supreme Court should take care to avoid throwing the baby with the bathwater. A fair assessment of the working of PIL will show that it has had a salubrious effect on the working of the democratic system.

A PIL by Sheela Barse, a freelance journalist, who took up the issue of custodial violence against women in prisons led to a court order for setting up of separate lock-ups for women. The first court directive on cleaning up of the Ganga came on a PIL filed by MC Mehta, a lawyer, who raised the issue of contamination of the river by tanneries located on its banks in Kanpur. The 2G scam cases in which politicians and bureaucrats figure as accused were also the result of a PIL.

When the court fines a petitioner for wasting its time it may actually be punishing him for its own failing. Take, for instance, the case of the MLA who has been slapped with the fine of Rs1 million. He had approached the Supreme Court after losing in the high court. Why was his petition entertained when its frivolous character was so evident?

Under the Constitution the Supreme Court need entertain an appeal only if the case involves a substantial question of law relating to interpretation of its provisions. The court can reduce its burden by strictly applying this criterion instead of entertaining every matter brought before it in the form of an appeal or special leave application.

In this matter, it can profit from the example of the US Supreme Court which only takes up as much as it can handle. That court receives each year 7,000 to 8,000 petitions. It grants and hears oral arguments only in about 80 of them.
 
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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning
 

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