President Ram Nath Kovind Thursday said cost of litigation is the "topmost" hurdle in improving "access to justice for all" and joined Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in hailing the efforts of the judiciary and the bar for not letting the coronavirus pandemic come in the way of fulfilling the duty of securing justice for citizens.
Two separate virtual events were organised by the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court Bar Association to celebrate the 71st anniversary of the adoption of the Constitution.
Speaking at the function organised by the top court, Kovind said that the cost involved in litigation was the "topmost" hurdle in improving "access to justice for all". He expressed happiness over the functioning of the apex court amid the pandemic, using technological solutions like video-conferencing and e-filing.
The law minister, while hailing the judiciary for hearing over 49 lakh cases digitally during the challenging times of Covid-19 pandemic in the country, expressed dismay over the growing criticism, especially of the top court for its judgements.
He said unleashing of criticism of the Supreme Court for its judicial functions and use of expressions like "judicial barbarism" in criticising judgements or orders were unacceptable.
"There may be shortcomings, but we need to be proud of our judiciary as it has held the hands of the poor and the underprivileged... Of late, there has been a disturbing trend. Some people have a view as to how a particular case filed the judgement should be. Then there are narratives in newspapers and campaigns in social media as to what kind of judgement should have come.
"Very gently I must comment today that expressions like judicial barbarism are totally unacceptable. Regardless of the stature of those who mentioned these things about our judiciary," Prasad said.
Chief Justice of India S A Bobde, in his addresses at both the functions, underlined the challenges faced by the judiciary during the pandemic and said that India's top court has fared much better than many other supreme courts of other countries.
Justice Bobde said that nothing is conferred as right of freedom of speech in "absolute and untrammelled terms" and the framers of the Constitution have struck a resilient balance between liberty and the rights and conditions on which the states can deny it.
"The judiciary has been entrusted with the balancing of the interest of the state and freedom granted by the Constitution to the people," he said, adding "It has to the large extent operated on the wisdom of the old saying while balancing rights that your right to swing your arms end where my nose begins."
He said that the restrictions on freedom of speech are in the interest of reputation of individuals and institutions.
The CJI said the judiciary has worked hard through the pandemic and its commitment to ensuring that access of justice is maintained to all the citizens.
He said the courts have faced some unprecedented challenges during the pandemic and the choice was very clear -- either to switch to virtual conferencing or to shut down the courts completely.
The court had to deal with difficult situations pertaining to migrants, woeful situations of dead bodies of dying men and women....etc, he said.
"The decision was taken to simply release prisoners, even those undergoing incarceration in detention centres in Assam. The hearings of video conferencing have given rise to a new issue of inequalities and these are extremely difficult to deal with," he said.
The Law minister referred to statistics about number of cases heard digitally by courts and said that Supreme Court has either heard or disposed of close to 30,000 cases digitally.
"But in spite of all these challenges, let me today compliment the judiciary as a whole. I would wish to share some statistics. This is as of October 2020... The Supreme Court has heard and disposed of or in the process of hearing close to 30,000 cases digitally. The high courts have heard 13.74 lakh cases digitally and the district courts have heard 35.93 lakh digitally. This has been a digital profile of hearing of cases," Prasad said.
He said that nine virtual courts have been set all over the country to hear traffic violation cases and they have disposed of 31 lakh cases and also raised fines.
Attorney General K K Venugopal suggested that there should be four intermediate courts of appeal with 15 judges each in the four corners of the country for ensuring access to justice by all.
Earlier in the day, Venugopal stressed on the need to fill up vacancies in the subordinate judiciary and to deal with the problem of huge pendency of cases, saying collective effort was needed to see that the justice delivery system is able to "wipe every tear from every eye".
Venugopal said as per national judicial data grid, around 3.61 crore cases are pending as on today in courts across the country and the "extremely sad" part is that around 4.29 lakh cases are pending for over 30 years.
Besides Venugopal, Bobde, Prasad and others including several judges of the apex court, SCBA president Dushyant Dave and lawyers were present at the virtual programme of the bar association.