EVEN as his son Ashish Mishra’s alleged involvement in last week’s incident of mowing down innocent farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri continues to remain in the headlines, the case has unwittingly brought focus back on Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Mishra’s own criminal antecedents.
But, more importantly, the spate of headlines has also brought the focus back on one more important aspect of our justice delivery system, one that impacts every citizen and which needs to be corrected at the earliest: the unusually long periods of orders or judgments being kept reserved without being delivered by our courts, including by the high courts.
Consider this: As per the minister’s own affidavit, which he filed along with his nomination papers for the 2019 Lok Sabha election as a BJP candidate from the Kheri constituency, he was booked by the Uttar Pradesh Police for the July 8, 2000 murder of 24-year-old Prabhat Gupta, who was shot dead in Lakhimpur Kheri’s Tikonia area.
He was acquitted by the district court on March 29, 2004, following which the State of Uttar Pradesh as well as the family of the victim filed separate appeals in the Allahabad High Court.
Apart from the fact that the appeals have not been decided since then, the more problematic issue, one that the Supreme Court may want to look into with the seriousness it deserves, is that a division bench of the Allahabad High Court reserved its judgment in the case on March 12, 2018.
After keeping it reserved, the matter was again relisted for further hearing. As per the Allahabad High Court’s website, the matter was last listed for hearing in February 2020.
And, this is why the Supreme Court needs to turn its lens on this problem.
How long, it needs to say in black and white by way of a judicial pronouncement, can a court keep a judgment reserved. Equally importantly, after having reserved its judgment, can and should a court re-open the case for fresh hearings, without a fixed time-line? Also, what happens if, in the interim, the judge or one of the judges – if the matter is being heard by a bench larger than a single judge’s – retires or is transferred to another court?
The Supreme Court should use this opportunity to lay down strict, unambiguous guidelines on this issue.
For, minister Mishra’s case and its trajectory clearly shows why the courts, including constitutional courts, must ask themselves to follow this wise counsel of a Judge of the Patna High Court and which was cited by a Supreme Court judge in the 2001 judgment in the Anil Rai case: “The Magistrate who cannot find time to write judgment within reasonable time after hearing arguments ought not do any judicial work at all. This Court strongly disapproves of the Magistrates making such a tremendous delay in the delivery of his judgments.”
That the Supreme Court, in the same order, also pointed to the irony that a division bench of the same high court took over two years to pronounce judgment after concluding arguments, even as the parties continued to languish in jail, speaks a lot about the “shocking state of affairs prevalent in some High Courts” (Anil Rai vs State Of Bihar on 6 August, 2001).
In 1976, deciding the case titled RC Sharma versus Union of India, a three-Judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, while dealing with the arguments of the counsel for the appellant, who had asserted that since the judges of the high court had taken eight from the date of last hearing to pronounce their judgment, they had not dealt “with a number of submissions made because they had, apparently, been forgotten”, also underscored the importance of speedier delivery of judgments.
“The Civil Procedure Code does not provide a time limit for the period between the hearing of arguments and the delivery of a judgment. Nevertheless, we think that an unreasonable delay between hearing of arguments and delivery of a judgment, unless explained by exceptional or extraordinary circumstances, is highly undesirable even when written arguments are submitted. It is not unlikely that some points which the litigant considers important may have escaped notice. But, what is more important is the litigants must have complete confidence in the results of litigation. This confidence tends to be shaken if there is excessive delay between hearing of arguments and delivery of judgments,” the bench noted.
In its August 2001 judgment in Anil Rai versus State of Bihar, the Supreme Court had laid down some guidelines for pronouncement of judgments.
One of the guidelines was that in case a bench fails to pronounce the verdict within three months from the date of reserving judgment, any of the parties in the case can file an application, seeking early judgment. “Such application, as and when filed, shall be listed before the Bench concerned within two days excluding the intervening holidays,” the bench had ordered.
However, like several other guidelines issued by it, these guidelines are also seldom followed.
It is high time the Supreme Court re-visited the issue of time-frame for pronouncement of judgments so that, as the Supreme Court often reminds everyone, “Justice must not only be done but must manifestly appear to be done”.