The Supreme Court had some statistics compiled last year. The results were not encouraging. Its raison d’être was vitiated. It was simply not allowed to do its primary function, that of an appellate court.
Like schools and colleges, courts too have their hierarchies. At the top of the pyramid is the Supreme Court of India - that red-stone building ever present on TV. Its word is, literally, the law.
In litigation, one starts at the base, with the ‘lowest’ court, from which one can move to higher courts, if need be, while appealing. Of course, the higher courts have reserved some matters for themselves, such as where the amounts in dispute are very high, in matters of public interest or when the Constitution needs to be interpreted… But.
You be the judge on this issue. A Parsi couple wants a divorce. They live in Mumbai. They approach the family court in Bandra. Should the court hear them?
It cannot. For some reason, Parsi matrimonial matters are the sole preserve of the Bombay High Court. Not only that, it has the only jury in India, thankfully in an advisory role. This is supreme irony for a community that had one of its own as an accused in a case that led to the withdrawal of the jury system in Bombay—the Cavas Nanavati case, resurrected recently in the movie Rustom.
It is easy to understand how courts are distinguished. In Mumbai, the Court of Small Causes deals only with Rent Act matters and 'leave & licence' cases, besides some cheque-bouncing cases. The magistrates’ courts look into crime cases and municipal and other small fines. This court starts at 8am and judgement is summary. It works all year round.
Then there are the tribunals. These are meant for specific cases like bank loans, company disputes and public premises. Railways and motor accidents tribunals have their own courts. Most of these also work perennially. ‘Consumer courts’, not the correct terminology, deal with complaints relating to insufficient or slip-shod products and services. Then there are district courts that have multiple responsibilities.
What is listed above is by no means complete; but it can be compacted into one word: ‘jurisdiction’. It means that specified legal problems have to go to a particular court. One does not go to KEM Hospital to study engineering or chemical technology. Or go to the JJ School of Arts to study law.
There is also what is called territorial jurisdiction. If your home is in Pune, you cannot take that dispute to Mumbai, let alone Delhi. In some cases, especially in serial crimes over many states, other rules may apply; but we need not expand on them at this moment. In divorce cases, the wife can choose the place of hearing.
Then there is pecuniary (money) jurisdiction. The court of small causes once was for disputes over small amounts. Today, in Mumbai, all matters of less than Rs 1 crore have been transferred from the High Court to the City Civil Court. Each court has a working band, in terms of amounts.
We have not lost track of the title. Lower courts are the first - stop the courts of first instance. They must act as trial courts: allow and weigh evidence, examine witnesses, summon people to court; in short, the nuts-and-bolts of the case. They need to pass intermediate orders, injunctions and proclaim judgements.
Next, one moves the superior courts in what is called 'appeals'. Appellate courts should not be burdened with the nitty-gritty that is the proclaimed province of the lower courts. They are not meant to hear evidence, but to dissect points of law, the apprehension being that once the evidence is in, a matter of facts heard by the earlier judge, he, junior as he may be, may have erred in interpreting the law. Loading the superior courts as trial courts is becoming endemic; another reason for the backlog.