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Critical Analysis of the Supreme Court’s Adjournment Reform

Introduction

The timeless legal maxim ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ echoes loud and clear in our overburdened judicial system. As per the National Judicial Data Grid, India has over 45 million pending cases, including approximately 4 million cases that are more than a decade old. The primary reasons for the huge pendency of cases are the shortage of judges, lack of infrastructure, procedural delays and adjournments.

An adjournment refers to the judicial practice of deferring a scheduled hearing to a later date. It is based on the underlying principles of “natural justice” and “fairness”.  While the principle of ‘natural justice’ calls for a sufficient chance to be given to both the parties of being heard, ‘fairness’ calls for an equality of opportunity between the parties. Order XVII of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 provides rules for courts to follow when faced with adjournment requests. The provision states that no adjournment shall be granted at the request of a party, except where circumstances are beyond their control. It is seen that the lawyers exploit this provision by providing false or exaggerated claims of “uncontrollable circumstances” to secure adjournments which leads to strategic delays.

There are various reasons why frequent adjournment requests lead to pendency of cases in the courts. Justice Dipak Misra highlighted in the case of Gayathri v M. Girish, that litigants pray for adjournment as if it was their right to seek adjournment on any ground whatsoever and under any circumstance, displaying a blatant disregard for the court proceedings.

The practice of allowing frequent adjournments has become so common that it has significantly contributed to the backlog of cases. To address this issue, the Supreme Court introduced a new set of guidelines for the circulation of adjournment letters under its circular released on 14th February 2024.

Overview of the Circular

Under the new procedure, the Court shall not accept letters of adjournments in classes of cases. Letters of adjournment are last-minute requests by the parties for the postponement of cases listed before a Bench of the Court. In the Supreme Court, lawyers can seek adjournments by circulating such letters. This practice, which has been in place since decades, forms an integral part of the adjournment procedure.

The cases in which the court will not accept an adjournment letter include those  related to bail/anticipatory bail, where an exemption from surrendering has been sought, matters where interim orders are, in effect, in favour of the party seeking time, and cases involving requests for suspension of sentence. Additionally, circulating adjournment letters for fresh or regular hearing matters is also prohibited.

However, in other matters, such letters can be circulated until one day before the publication of the main list of cases with the consent or non-objection  of the advocates or parties appearing on the other side. Further, this request should contain the specific reasons for seeking adjournment and the number of postponements sought earlier in the case. Crucially, consecutive adjournments are not allowed, irrespective of which party in the case is making the request. Matters adjourned under these guidelines will be listed before the court within four weeks, with a specific date set for hearing and no oral mentioning would be permitted to advance the date.               

Challenges and Drawbacks

The Supreme Court’s crackdown on adjournments aims to provide swift justice to litigants. This move aligns with the idea of “speedy trial” which is recognised as a fundamental right under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. However, it overlooks the crucial role adjournments play in ensuring fair and just outcomes.

Limiting adjournments, unintentionally, favours those with the resources to navigate the system quickly, while underprivileged people with fewer resources may be forced to accept unfair settlements out of fear and lack of time to prepare a proper defence. More importantly, it may compromise the very “fairness” enshrined in Article 21, by rushing through crucial investigative and preparatory steps.

While the Supreme Court has taken proactive steps to address the issue of pending cases, it has focused solely on one aspect of the problem, namely adjournment. However, imposing strict restrictions on adjournments will not be effective until the root cause of the backlog of cases, which is the insufficiency in the number of judges, is addressed. India’s huge population contributes to excessive litigation and an insufficient number of judges coupled with vacant judicial positions further worsen the crisis. India’s judge-population ratio is only approximately 21 judges per million population, far below the recommended 50 judges per million population. Thus, the number of available judges is insufficient to handle the huge number of cases, resulting in overburdened courts and overworked judges.

This reform could potentially create a negative chain of events where, due to the strict adjournment procedure, fewer cases are adjourned. Consequently, more cases are available to be heard in a single day for judges. However, the number of judges and their time is limited so they may not be able to hear all the cases meticulously which could compel them to adjourn some cases, thus returning to the initial problem of granting adjournments, which was intended to be reduced in the first place by the circular. Hence, the adjournment reform will not have the desired effect until more judges are appointed.

 Alternate Solutions

One of the reasons for adjournments in many cases is also the uncertainty of listing and the non-availability of court time. As per the Indian legal system, many cases are listed on a single day and lawyers are made to wait for their turn, consuming their creative time for reading and preparations. One of the most critical requirements for  lawyers is to ensure that they receive a timely and definitive hearing. It is suggested that this can be achieved through an efficient case management system, which can be an alternative solution to address pendency of cases.

“Case management” in the context of a judicial system refers to a comprehensive system of management of time and events in a lawsuit as it proceeds through the justice system from its initiation to resolution. The two essential components of a Case Management System are setting time standards for key court events and regulations on adjournments.

The concept of case management was made part of the judicial process in the United States of America under The Civil Justice Reform Act, 1990 that included categorizing cases based on complexity and duration and the early involvement of a judicial officer in the planning and progress of a case. This helps in allocating resources more effectively as simpler cases can move through the system faster and judges can identify potential delays early, set realistic timelines, and enforce them. India’s persistent issue of judicial backlog can be mitigated by introducing a case management system like the Civil Justice Reform Act, 1990.

Indian courts can also implement a case management system like the one followed by the Singapore Supreme Court which established specific timelines for crucial case events, such as entering an appearance, filing defences, and closing pleadings which provides a structured and predictable pathway for the progression of cases. Incorporating similar procedural standards in Indian courts would likely reduce delays and promote a more organised and responsive legal environment benefitting both the judiciary and litigants seeking timely resolution.

An additional practical step that could be implemented is to require parties seeking adjournments to cover the costs incurred by the other side due to the delay, creating a financial deterrent. This would discourage parties from seeking unnecessary adjournments and would enable matters to be adjudicated within a reasonable time.

 Conclusion

It cannot be denied that adjournments are a necessary evil in the present conditions. Providing an advance notice of an adjournment request allows both judges and lawyers to avoid reviewing case files unnecessarily and ultimately speeding up the legal process. However, they do require careful management to minimise their negative impacts. While implementing reforms and striking a balance between fairness and efficiency, the legal system should ensure adjournments serve their intended purpose which is promoting fairness and delivering justice while avoiding unnecessary delays and burdens. Thus, the court must ensure that the pursuit of speedy justice doesn’t come at the cost of fair proceedings, a thorough investigation, and that ultimately the very essence of Article 21 which is fair and speedy trial for all is achieved.

The post is written by Vasudev Mishra and Harshul Mittal. They are second-year students at the National Law Institute University, Bhopal.

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