New Delhi: The Supreme Court’s annual summer break began Monday, 13 May, and will last till 30 June. While the country’s top court is on nearly 50-days’ leave, vacation benches will be in place to hear pressing matters that can’t wait till the break ends.
On 9 May, the Supreme Court of India issued a notification about the composition of this year’s vacation benches for the period between 13 May and 13 June, with those for the remaining break to be notified later.
Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi will be on the bench with Justice M.R. Shah from 25 May to 30 May, the dates which coincide with the period immediately after the Lok Sabha election results are declared on 23 May.
ThePrint explains the functions of the vacation bench and how it came to be.
What is a vacation bench
Early in the month of May, all courts go on a summer break, with the Supreme Court’s lasting nearly two months. During this period, the SC constitutes vacation benches — the composition of which is decided by the CJI — to hear urgent miscellaneous cases as well as regular matters in order to clear the backlog.
Senior advocate Rebecca Mammen John told ThePrint that all courts did not have a uniform number of holidays: District and trial courts, she said, had fewer holidays than high courts and the Supreme Court.
There are usually six vacation benches in the Supreme Court through the summer, with each bench sitting for six days. Each bench has no more than two judges.
According to the Supreme Court circular for 2019, Mondays are meant for hearing urgent miscellaneous pending cases and Tuesday to Friday for regular matters.
In order to get a matter listed before a vacation bench, according to a circular of the Supreme Court, the counsel or party-in-person must file an affidavit of urgency which should include the nature of the matter, the reason for not filing it before the vacation, the latest date up to which the matter can be heard in view of the urgency, and the nature of interim order sought.
The nature of cases heard by the vacation bench usually pertain to rent, land acquisition, compensation, academics, elections, and habeas corpus petitions.
Origin of the vacation bench
The origin of vacation benches and holidays for courts date back to colonial rule in India, when British judges, unable to bear the heat during the Indian summer, would sail back to England, only to return during the monsoon months.
Now, the summer recess is seen as a welcome break for judges and necessary for their work.
Senior advocate Sanjay Hegde told ThePrint that vacations were very important — more than rest and recuperation, the time was required for reflection and to catch up on work that could not be done during working days. “Vacations are an integral part of court procedure,” he said.
John said lawyers spent most working days in court, which left them little time to prepare for cases. “Similarly, for judges who hear close to 80-90 matters a day, this time is required to complete the backlog of judgments,” she added.
However, the long break has been questioned: The 230th Law Commission of India Report on Judicial Reforms (2009) said that, considering the mounting pendency, vacations in the higher judiciary must be curtailed by at least 10 to 15 days and working hours extended by at least 30 minutes.
Composition of the vacation bench
The benches for this year’s summer break so far include, CJI Gogoi and Justices M.R. Shah, Indira Banerjee, Sanjiv Khanna, Arun Mishra, L. Nageswara Rao, Indu Malhotra and Ajay Rastogi.
In 2018, the vacation bench sat from 21 May to 1 July, and comprised Justices A.M. Khanwilkar, Navin Sinha, L. Nageswara Rao, Mohan M. Shantanagoudar, Ashok Bhushan, A.K. Goel, U.U. Lalit and Deepak Gupta.
“The vacation benches are not decided according to seniority but are mostly decided on who is available during that time to hear the cases,” said Hegde.
“Usually, more junior members are asked to sit on the vacation bench,” John added.
Important decisions taken by vacation benches
In 2018, after the Karnataka assembly elections results were declared on 15 May, the BJP emerged as the single-largest party but failed to reach the majority mark.
Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala invited state BJP chief and former CM B.S. Yeddyurappa to form the government, and gave him 15 days for a floor test to prove his majority.
The Congress, which had forged a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular), went to the Supreme Court in protest, and then CJI Dipak Misra constituted a vacation bench of Justices A.K. Sikri, S.A. Bobde and Ashok Bhushan.
They scrapped the 15-day window given to the BJP and ordered a floor test the very next day (19 May). The BJP failed to prove its majority and the Congress-JD(S) formed the government.
In 1975, after Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha of the Allahabad High Court found then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi guilty of electoral malpractice, she was disqualified from Parliament and barred from holding any elected post for six years. She appealed to the Supreme Court, which was on vacation.
A vacation bench comprising Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer conditionally stayed the Allahabad High Court judgment: He granted Gandhi the right to attend Parliament, but ruled that she could not participate in the Lok Sabha proceedings or vote as an MP. This subsequently lead to the imposition of Emergency.
One of the more recent cases heard by a vacation bench was in 2017, when a Constitution Bench led by then CJI J.S. Khehar held a marathon six-day hearing on triple talaq. The bench also comprised Justices Kurian Joseph, R.F. Nariman, U.U. Lalit and S. Abdul Nazeer. It heard seven pleas in the case. In August, the bench declared the practice of triple talaq unconstitutional by a 3:2 majority .
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