Editor’s Note: In this Article, against the backdrop of recent cancellations of vacations by the judiciary during the Covid-19 crisis, Tanvi Apte highlights the pros and cons of vacations for the judiciary in general, initiating discussions on whether there is a need to modify or do away with the judicial vacation calendar as it stands today.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the regular functioning of our judiciary, just as it has done to every other institution in the country. Due to the crisis, courts are presently conducting only online hearings of urgent matters through video conferencing. As a result, adjudication is getting delayed, litigants are suffering and judicial pendencies are further increasing. Looking at these circumstances, High Courts in Gujarat, Bombay, Karnataka, Delhi, Orissa and Telangana have cancelled their summer vacations, and the Madras High Court has “indefinitely postponed” them. Further, the Supreme Court Bar Association, as well as Senior Advocate Dinesh Goswami, have written to Chief Justice Bobde urging him to cancel the summer vacations of the Supreme Court. In response, the Supreme Court has also curtailed its vacations recently. The reason for all these cancellations, as also made explicit by the several cancellation notifications, is fairly clear – courts want to provide relief to the litigants in these troubled times and also make up for time lost due to the Covid-19 lockdown.
While this move to cancel vacations is indeed laudable, it raises several questions about vacations for the judiciary in general. One pertinent question is – had the crisis coincided with the scheduled vacations, would courts still have altered their working schedules to hear more cases? In other words, do vacations need to be cancelled only to substitute for lost time during a crisis like Covid-19, or do they need to be done away with completely because of the omnipresent crisis of judicial pendency?
General Duration of Judicial Vacations
In addition to weekends and public holidays, courts generally have five vacation periods – summer, winter, Holi, Dussehra and Diwali. The summer vacation is the longest and usually extends for over a month, while the other vacations range from five to fifteen days. Further, several high courts and their subordinate courts also have holidays for local festivals, such as Pongal. Typically, courts are not entirely shut during vacations; there are usually vacation benches that hear urgent matters such as hebeas corpus petitions and election related disputes during this period.
Overall, in an average year, the Supreme Court works for about 190-200 days, while high courts work for about 200-210 days, with subordinate courts working for about 250 days. For instance, in 2020, the Supreme Court has 193 working days in its calendar and four high courts have about 210 working days in their respective calendars. Thus, courts in India are working for little more than half the year. These vacations have often been called excessively long and subjected to intense criticism. However, the supporters of vacations are also very vocal. A heated debate thus ensues.
Criticism of Judicial Vacations
The single largest criticism of judicial vacations originates from the plague that has been affecting our system since its inception – judicial pendencies. Critics often point out that the practice of long vacations first began in colonial times because judges needed to travel by ship and spend sufficient time with their families back in England during the year. They argue that there is no need to continue this colonial tradition today given changed realities and insurmountable pendencies. Indeed, judicial backlogs are a well-documented problem that need no detailed elaboration. To quote just a couple of staggering statistics, as of August 2019 there were about 3.5 crore cases pending in India as per the National Judicial Data Grid. Further, as far back as 2010, when the pendencies were relatively lesser, Justice V. V. Rao had famously remarked that it would take 320 years for the judiciary to dispose all its pending cases. The numbers speak for themselves – against the backdrop of pendencies, colonial-origin long vacations are considered an assault on the right to speedy justice guaranteed by Article 21 of our Constitution.
In fact, over the years, several calls have been made to reduce vacations in light of high pendencies but to no avail. For instance, the 230th Law Commission Report of 2009 recommended that vacations be reduced by atleast 10-15 days annually and working hours be extended by atleast half an hour to cope with pendencies. Additionally, Public Interest Litigations have also been filed in the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court pleading that long vacations be reduced so as to secure speedy justice guaranteed by Article 21 of our Constitution. Time and again, several former Chief Justices such as Justice Lodha and Justice Thakur have floated ideas that vacations be reduced or working hours be increased to tackle pendencies. While the total vacation period has reduced a little over the years, no substantive change in the status quo has occurred. Pointing this out, opponents reiterate that vacations are not an entitlement our overburdened system can afford, but nothing is being done about reducing them. As compared to other similarly-placed professions like medicine, the working hours of judges are said to be abysmally low in light of their need by the public. Consequently, looking at the sheer number of days the court is vacationing and the mounting burden, public confidence in the judiciary as an institution is being eroded.
Benefits of Judicial Vacations
Those in support of vacations counter the pendency argument by pointing out that the staggering backlogs in our system are caused by a complex combination of several factors including judicial vacancies and poor case management. Merely taking away annual holidays is not a solution to fix India’s overburdened judicial system; a change in the entire legal culture is required. Cancellation of holidays in this manner will only be counter-productive and end up exponentially increasing the number of fatigued and angry judges, lawyers and court staff.
Further, supporters also argue that judges, lawyers and court staff will not only be tired and angry if they are denied vacations, they will also be less efficient. Our judiciary already has a lot on its plate. Judges adjudicate and lawyers argue several matters in court every day, which in itself is mentally draining. What’s more, courtroom time is just a subset of their overall work. Beyond court hours, judges spend a significant amount of time every day in writing judgments, passing orders and reading case files. Similarly, lawyers spend hours working on their case briefs and courtroom staff spend hours in providing assistance to judges. Moreover, judges and lawyers often spend the vacation in catching up on pending work, reflecting on their performance and reading up on the recent developments of the law, an activity that is crucial to their job. In light of this, cancellation of vacations will deprive judges of some much-needed time to rejuvenate, re-evaluate and improve their work; it will simply increase instances of burnout. Hence, supporters argue that vacations are needed, more so for those subordinate courts which already work six days a week.
The Way Ahead
Debates around judicial vacations do not have any easy answers. Indeed, the arguments of both sides have merit and must be given due consideration. Looking at all the points made by both the supporters and the opponents, one thing is clear – adopting either of the extremes is not an answer. While vacation periods could definitely be reduced, cancelling them altogether is not the solution. Further, reducing vacations will reduce pendencies to an extent, but it will not solve the problem in its entirety without other measures such as increasing judicial appointments and proper case management. All in all, a solution which ensures an optimal number of holidays must be adopted. However, it is extremely difficult to zero in on this optimal number. A more holistic solution is thus needed. Providing judges with flexibility to decide their own vacation days instead of every judge going on vacation at the same time can be one such solution. However, its efficacy has not really been evaluated.
While we are still searching for this better solution, we must not forget to appreciate voluntary efforts by the judges who give up their vacations to do their bit in reducing pendencies. Indeed, at the individual level, judges are attempting to work as much as they possibly can, be it by deciding to work on Saturdays or by cooperating with lawyers to hear some matters during vacations. The voluntarily cancellation of vacations during the present Covid-19 pandemic is just another example of these efforts. While such voluntary actions are not a systemic solution, they are nevertheless an important mechanism to keep the situation under control till we can come up with a better solution.
“Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.”