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06 March, 2008

Let the courts move closer to the people

Lawyers of Thiruvananthapuram, capital of Kerala, have been agitation for a month demanding a high court bench. This is not the first agitation on this issue. Normally, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary all have their seats in the capital. When the princely states of Travancore and Cochin were integrated six decades ago, it was decided that Thiruvananthapuram would be the capital but the high court would be at Kochi. The Centre had offered the high court as a consolation prize to Kochi, which was losing the status of state capital.

The Centre applied the same formula when Rajasthan was created by integrating several princely states. Jaipur was made the capital, but the high court was located at Jodhpur. Both Jaipur and Thiruvananthapuram were given high court benches. Later these were abolished. Subsequently the Jaipur bench was restored, but not the Thiruvananthapuram bench. The reason for this is not clear.

Lawyers of Thiruvananthapuram argue that the State government is a party in a majority of the cases that come before the Kerala high court and that if there is a bench in the capital the huge amount expenditure involved in official travels in connection with court cases can be avoided. Lawyers of some districts of Malabar region have now come forward to demand a bench at Kannur or Kozhikode. They point out that a majority of the cases before the high court are from these districts. Lawyers of Kochi are against having a bench anywhere else.

Organizations in Thiruvananthapuram support to the local lawyers’ demand. Presumably, lawyers of Malabar and Kochi also enjoy local support. But those responsible for decision-making must be able to rise above regional sentiments and vested interests and approach the issue objectively.

Both under Left Democratic Front rule and under United Democratic Front rule, the State government has said it favours the location of a bench at Thiruvananthapuram. But it is doubtful if any government has sincerely worked for it. However, the main obstacle in the way of establishment of a bench is not the apathy of the State government but the unfavourable attitude of the high court and the Supreme Court and the reluctance of the Centre to take a firm stand. The Centre has an obligation to consult the Chief Justice on the issue of setting of up a bench. It is not willing to proceed without the Chief Justice’s consent probably because the Supreme Court has said in one of the cases relating to appointment of judges that consultation means concurrence.

The high court’s latest response to the Thiruvananthapuram bench demand came not as the Chief Justice’s opinion but a full court decision. The Chief Justice has created a new precedent by leaving to the full court a decision that he should have taken. The full court is said to have concluded that a bench at Thiruvananthapuram is not feasible. It is not clear on what basis the judges reached this conclusion. Of the 21 high courts in the country at least seven already have benches outside their headquarters. The high court at Guwahati in Assam serves seven States. It has benches in all those States. The Jammu and Kashmir high court, like the government of that State, functions from Srinagar in the summer and from Jammu in the winter. What practical problems can arise at Thiruvananthapuram which are not there at other places?

On the last Law Day (November 26), Chief Justice K. G. Balakrishnan presented to the people of India a report on the working of the Judiciary. The Constitution says in its Preamble that the people of India adopted it and gave it unto themselves. Yet it did not occur to any of his predecessors to present a report to the people. In the report, he said access to justice was a constitutional right and every civilized state had a duty to provide it. Setting up of benches, not only of high courts but also of the Supreme Court, must be seen as part of the effort to make justice easily accessible to the people. All Chief Justices so far have opposed the setting up of a bench of the apex court outside New Delhi. The fear that quality will suffer if two or three judges sit in Chennai, Kolkata or Mumbai, instead of New Delhi, is irrational. Technology which can help overcome any practical problem involved in the process is available today.

More benches will reduce the distance between the people and the courts and make the judiciary more democratic. Justice Balakrishnan must be able to provide the leadership to make changes of this kind.
Based on column “Nerkkazhcha” appearing in Kerala Kaumudi dated March 6, 2008

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