Though the Supreme Court is not a model for dispensing speedy justice, even in death sentence cases, its advisory for the rest of the judiciary should be heard with due respect. Some hard cases compel it to look inwards and spell out the faults in the system. Its recent judgment in the case, Noor Mohammed vs Jethanand, is one such that highlighted the havoc caused by adjournments granted for the asking.
This civil suit over land started in 1990 and has taken two rounds to the Rajasthan High Court and the Supreme Court. The dispute is still unresolved. The Supreme Court blamed this state of affairs on the "corrosive effect of adjournments". It said the manner in which the case progressed was shocking.
"It is astonishing that the lawyers sought adjournments in a routine and nonchalant manner, and the court also acceded to such prayers in routine fashion," the judgment said. The registry also contributed its mighty bit to the tragic story. It took inordinate time to put the case file in order, leading to disciplinary action against an official. The judgment ended with a request to the chief justices of high courts to evolve a mechanism to avoid such unjustified delays and speed up the course of litigation.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has lamented the deleterious effect of adjournments, sought and granted mindlessly or to delay a case deliberately. However, there has been little improvement. Last year, in the case Shiv Cotex vs Tirgun Auto Plast Ltd, the court asked: "Is the court obliged to give adjournment after adjournment merely because the stakes are high in the dispute? Should the court be a silent spectator and leave control of the case to a party to the case who has decided not to take the case forward?"
In answer, the court remarked: "It is sad, but true, that the litigants seek – and the court grant – adjournments at the drop of the hat. It is high time that courts become sensitive to delays and realise that adjournments dent the efficacy of the judicial process, and if this menace is not controlled adequately, the litigant public may lose faith in the system sooner or later. Adjournments have grown like cancer — corroding the entire body of the justice delivery system."
Those who regularly visit courts are familiar with excuses trotted out by lawyers. Sometimes, the lawyer is "on his legs" in an adjacent court, or he has to catch a flight in the foggy afternoon, or he does not want to appear before a particular judge. In a case of the last variety (Mahabir Prasad Singh vs Jacks Aviation), the Supreme Court stated that "no advocate can ask the court to avoid a case on the ground that he does not want to appear in that court".
In another case, Lt Col S J Chaudhary vs State, the counsel said he found it difficult to attend the court on a day-to-day basis. The Supreme Court rejected this excuse and remarked: "Having accepted the brief, he will be committing a breach of his professional duty if he so fails to attend."
Then, there are frequent strikes by lawyers on flimsy grounds. The court has stated several times that the legal profession should not go on strike. In one such judgment 12 years ago, Ramon Services Ltd vs Subhash Kapoor, the court warned: "We put the profession to notice that in future the advocate would be answerable for the consequences suffered by the party if the non-appearance was solely on the ground of a strike call. The court has the power to permit the part to realise the costs from the advocate concerned."
There are several ways to cloth the intention to delay proceedings with technicalities. It is well known that court procedures are complex and the codes have provided ample opportunities to manufacture delays. The Supreme Court in the case, Revajeetu Builders vs Narayanaswamy & Sons, pointed out that Order VI Rule 17 of the Civil Procedure Code is "one of the most misused provisions for dragging the proceedings indefinitely". This provision allows a party to alter or amend the pleadings.
Though this is a procedural rule, known only to the legal profession, the court stated that "indiscriminate filing of applications is one of the man causes of delay in disposal of civil cases". The courts are flooded with such applications and they are normally allowed. When the Malimath Committee recommended scrapping of the rule, the lawyers all over the country went on a strike, forcing the government to retract the move. Procedural rules, however, cannot be ignored, since they are described as the "handmaiden of justice". It is as important as substantive justice, especially in criminal law. It is for the judges to see that both procedural and substantive law are followed to achieve justice, and not to delay it.