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October 05, 2016

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HIGH TIME!


- Arush Khanna, Advocate and Legal Consultant [ Supreme Court of India & Delhi High Court ]

Arush-Khanna

The Delhi High Court (Amendment) Bill, 2015 that was finally passed in the Lok Sabha through a voice vote on 5 August, 2015, seeks to increase the pecuniary Jurisdiction of Civil Suits instituted in the Delhi High Court tenfold from Rs. 20 Lakhs to Rs. 2 Crores.

This monsoon session, the Houses of Parliament witnessed a complete logjam to the extent that many important legislations could not even see the light of the day. However, amidst all the chaos ensuing in the Parliament, there was one important and noteworthy Bill that was passed by the Lok Sabha - a Bill bearing the potential of creating an unprecedented impact on lawyers as well as litigants (both current and prospective) in our National Capital. The Delhi High Court (Amendment) Bill, 2015 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘Bill’) was finally passed in the Lok Sabha through a voice vote on August 5, 2015, three (3) months after the Upper House had given a nod to the same.

The Bill brings about an amendment in Section 5 (2) of the Delhi High Court Act, 1966, as well as Section 25 of the Punjab Courts Act, 1918 by substituting the words “rupees twenty lakhs” with the words “rupees two crores”. In other words, the Bill seeks to increase the pecuniary jurisdiction of the Civil Suits instituted in the Delhi High Court tenfold from Rs. 20 Lakhs to Rs. 2 Crores. For all my non-lawyer friends, pecuniary jurisdiction refers to the jurisdiction of a court over a suit based on the amount or value of subject matter, and it owes its origin to the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC), which came into force in 1908, more than a century ago. The law providing for pecuniary jurisdiction is encapsulated in Section 6 of the CPC and is read as under:-

“Pecuniary jurisdiction - Save in so far as is otherwise expressly provided, nothing herein contained shall operate to give any Court jurisdiction over suits the amount or value of the subject matter of which exceeds the pecuniary limits (if any) of its ordinary jurisdiction”

For example, a person who wishes to file a Civil Suit for partition of an immovable property valued anywhere up to Rs.2 Crore, can now file the same in a District Court in Delhi which will have territorial jurisdiction to entertain the matter, as opposed to approaching the Delhi High Court.

Unlike other points of controversies plaguing the Parliament this monsoon session, the passing of the Bill was, comparatively, a smoother affair. However, the smoothness in the Parliament was nullified about 3 kilometres east, on other side of the India Gate i.e. at the Delhi High Court. The Delhi High Court was at the epicentre of some unprecedented infighting amongst members of Delhi’s legal fraternity in which the members of Bar Associations of six (6) District Courts were at loggerheads with the patron members of the Delhi High Court Bar Association. So much so that, the District Court lawyers went on an indefinite work strike from July 21, 2015 demanding an expeditious passage of the Bill, while those of the High Court went on a strike for about six (6) days from July 22, 2015 opposing the said Bill.

Resorting to complete cessation of work wherein the entire judicial machinery of the city comes to a standstill is something, which has been vehemently condemned by the Constitution Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India in the landmark case of Harish Uppal (Ex-Capt.) vs. Union of India [(2003) 2 SCC 45]. Although the judgement declares strikes by lawyers as illegal and unconstitutional, it also observes that lawyers, like litigants, are also a part and parcel of the system of administration of justice. Therefore, only in the “rarest of rare cases” where the issues pertain to the dignity, integrity and independence of the Bar or the Bench, the Courts have been given the discretionary powers to overlook protest abstentions by lawyers from work for a period not exceeding one day.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court on September 11, 2015, relying on the principles propounded in the abovementioned judgement, issued a contempt notice against the Secretary and the Chairman of the Delhi High Court Bar Association and District Bar Association respectively. This notice has been issued pursuant to a Contempt Petition filed by a Non Government Organization (NGO) that has alleged that these prolonged strikes by members of Delhi High Court Bar Association and various District Bar Associations on the tussle for pecuniary jurisdiction is in wilful and deliberate contravention of explicit directions of the Supreme Court given in the Harish Uppal case.

The petitioner has, in its petition, also prayed for a writ of mandamus directing the Bar Council of India (BCI), to incorporate appropriate rules prohibiting the use of strikes by advocates in the “Standards for Professional Conduct and Etiquette” framed under Section 49(1) (C) of the Advocates Act, 1961.

Whether the issue in hand involved the dignity, integrity and independence of the Bar and whether the passing of the Bill was propelled and catalysed by the prolonged strikes are debates that have become infructuous now. In my considered opinion, the passing of the Bill was long overdue, especially, in view of the unimaginable backlog of cases pending before the Delhi High Court. I truly believe the transfer of jurisdiction would benefit the cause of justice as well as litigants.

New Delhi is divided into 6 (six) judicial districts with each having its own District Court, as opposed to only one High Court. The Supreme Court of India’s website shows that, as on March 31, 2014, as many as 65,159 cases were pending in the Delhi High Court with 38 Judges against the sanctioned strength of 48 Judges which works out to approximately 1,715 cases per Judge. In contrast, the District Courts had 5,22,118 Civil and Criminal cases pending with an actual strength of 483 Judges against the sanctioned strength of 758 Judges which works out to approximately 1,081 cases per District Court Judge1. Please note that the said statistics cover both Civil and Criminal cases. In view of the fact that the District Court is ordinarily the court of first instance in all Criminal cases (apart from certain Bail applications and petitions under Section 482 of the CPC), the difference in the number of civil cases per Judge of the Delhi High Court and District Courts could not have been more glaring and astounding.

The Bill further empowers the Hon’ble Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court to transfer any pending Civil suit up to the value of Rs.2 Crore to the District Court having territorial jurisdiction to hear the matter. Should this power be exercised, about 12,500 Civil suits currently pending before six (6) Judges of the Delhi High Court would be transferred to the appropriate and competent District Courts. Statistically speaking, as a result of the Bill, a load of over two thousand (2000) cases per High Court Judge will be reduced and considering the number of District Judges (including Additional District Judges and Civil Judges) in New Delhi, one can expect an average increase of approximately fifty (50) cases to the roster of an Additional District Judge and/or Civil Judge. Such startling statistics make me wonder, “Why was this not done earlier”?

It’s quite ironical that apart from the High Court of Himachal Pradesh, it is the Chartered High Courts of India (Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras) that have placed a ceiling on the pecuniary jurisdiction of their respective District Courts, despite the fact that the circle rates of properties in these cities are comparatively higher than those of other smaller cities in India where the District Courts have unlimited pecuniary jurisdiction.

For the citizens of New Delhi, much like what ensued in the District Courts at Kolkata and Bombay (pursuant to the enhancement of their pecuniary jurisdiction), the Bill stands to benefit all three stakeholders of judiciary i.e. the Bar, the Bench and the common man. Further, the quality of District Court Judges as well as lawyers practicing in those courts would substantially increase with an increase in the quantity and quality of cases coming to or before them as a result of the revised pecuniary jurisdiction. The advocates practicing predominantly before the District Courts are also bound to benefit, financially from this amendment, thereby reducing financial disparity in the profession. As far as the common man is concerned, this amendment is surely a positive step towards a faster, efficient, accessible and cost effective judicial system in the National Capital, one which the citizens have been longing since the explosion in the number of litigations post liberalisation.

Having said all the above, I firmly believe that, moving forward, the concept of pecuniary jurisdiction, being a legacy of the colonial era, would require serious revision. Keeping in mind the best interest of our judicial system and the convenience of our fast increasing population, all city Civil Courts in the metropolitan cities of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai would need to be given unlimited pecuniary jurisdiction in times to come.

1[* Source: The Financial Express]

Disclaimer – The views expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and are purely informative in nature.

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