There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen. This statement, at the risk of exaggeration, best describes the 74 days tenure of Chief Justice of India Uday Umesh Lalit. Only four other CJIs have had shorter tenures than Justice Lalit whereas Justice L.M. Sharma had a similar tenure of 86 days in 1992-93. All other CJIs presided for more than 100 days. However, Justice Lalit’s tenure will always be compared to his recent predecessors each of whom presided well over a year.
The Supreme Court is the guardian of the Constitution of India, which carries out a role of being the final court to decide substantial questions of law pertaining to interpretation of its provisions. Such issues are decided by a bench comprising at least five judges of the Supreme Court, called Constitution Benches. As on October 1, 2022 there were 54 cases (and 434 cases connected to the main 54 cases) pending before the Supreme Court which required consideration by Constitution Benches. Justice Lalit’s immediate predecessor Justice N.V. Ramana had presided as CJI for almost a year and a half but was not successful in convening even one Constitution Bench.
At the time of taking charge Justice Lalit promised that at least one Constitution Bench would sit throughout the year, and immediately followed it up by listing 27 such cases for hearing before five such Benches. These became a regular feature every week and continue to hear various cases. While two Constitution Bench cases were decided during his tenure, other cases remain pending for final adjudication. In comparison, prior to Justice Lalit assuming office, only 10 Constitution Benches had been convened since 2000.
About a month into his tenure, Justice Lalit brought to fruition a long-standing demand for live streaming of cases in response to a letter from Indira Jaising, Senior Advocate, who has espoused the cause for almost half a decade now. However, the facility was only extended to Constitution Bench proceedings even though it would have served the people and the institution better to extend it to all proceedings. This would not have been unprecedented as six High Courts already livestream all their proceedings.
Another important reform brought about by Justice Lalit was prioritising of ‘regular’ matters. Broadly speaking, ‘regular’ matters are those where the court has decided to admit for final hearing. Prior to being admitted as a regular matter, all cases are considered miscellaneous matters. Mondays and Fridays in the Supreme Court are usually reserved for miscellaneous matters, with regular matters listed from Tuesdays to Thursdays. However, most regular matters languished on the board for years because of listing of some miscellaneous matters on these three days as well. The usual practice was to first hear miscellaneous matters and then take up regular hearing matters, time permitting.
Justice Lalit turned this system upside down and directed that regular matters would be taken up in the pre-lunch session on priority and miscellaneous matters in the post-lunch session. This resulted in improvement in disposal of regular matters which were mostly years old. However, not everyone was happy with this system. While there were murmurs of dissent amongst Supreme Court lawyers as regular matters were being listed at short notice, a senior judge even went on record to say that the new system did not leave them with much time to decide miscellaneous cases. However, there is no doubt that this was a litigant friendly reform.
Justice Lalit admitted that there were problems with the new system but defended the process by claiming that all the judges are completely on the same page as the decision to change the listing system was taken after consulting all the judges of the court in a full-court meeting. The fact that the system worked was supported by the high disposal rates within the first two weeks of the change. About 17000 cases were listed for hearing out of which about 4000 cases were disposed of by the Supreme Court during this time. Even the decision to livestream proceedings of the Constitution Bench was taken after holding a full-court meeting. This shows that Justice Lalit believed in a consultative process rather than asserting himself as the first amongst equals.
However, this consultative process failed when it came to functioning of the collegium. The five senior-most judges comprise the collegium which recommends elevation of judges to the Supreme Court, while the 3 senior-most judges form a collegium to recommend appointment of judges to the High Courts. The collegium led by Justice S.A. Bobde, the CJI just before Justice Ramana, had failed to elevate even one judge to the Supreme Court during his tenure of almost a year and a half. On the other hand, Justice Ramana led collegium was hyperactive which resulted in elevation of 11 judges to the Supreme Court.
The collegium led by Justice Lalit developed cracks after he tried to have a consultative process by asking the collegium members to provide their views in writing on judges who were being considered for elevation. Even though two members provided their views through letters, two others including Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, the new CJI, objected to the process. Justice Chandrachud earlier did not attend a meeting of the collegium which had in fact led to Justice Lalit seeking everyone’s views in writing. All this led to an unprecedented resolution being published by the court detailing how the process failed. While this was great for transparency, it only went on to show that all is not well with the current system of judicial appointments which is any way a highly criticised system.
When Justice Lalit was directly elevated to the Supreme Court, the Bar lost an eminent Senior Counsel. In his lawyer avatar he was extremely down to earth and accessible despite his stature, which was something quite rare. He displayed the same qualities as a Supreme Court judge, and one hopes that he will continue to be involved in the field of law in some capacity.
Chitranshul Sinha is an advocate on record of the Supreme Court of India and a partner in Dua Associates, Advocates and Solicitors. He is also the author of 'The Great Repression' (Penguin 2019).