CJI UU Lalit. Photo: ANI
New Delhi: Former Chief Justice of India UU Lalit on Sunday responded to questions raised over a special hearing of activist G N Saibaba's case on a court holiday, saying the CJI's role is to set up benches when the occasion demands and he has "no control" over the outcome or proceedings.
A special Supreme Court bench had assembled on Saturday - October 15 - to hear Maharashtra's appeal against the acquittal of former Delhi University professor Saibaba and others in a Maoist-links case and had suspended his release.
Some sections have questioned the alleged haste in listing the matter on a holiday and the constitution of the bench.
Narrating the sequence of events that led to setting up of the special bench, Justice Lalit said the matter was mentioned before a bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud, who is now the Chief Justice of India (CJI), on October 14 for urgent listing as he was sitting on a ceremonial bench with Justice Hemant Gupta, who was retiring.
He said, acting on the information from the registry official in this regard, many judges were consulted for sitting on the special bench the next day. Justice Shah and Justice Trivedi agreed to be part of it, the former CJI said.
"Mind you, at no juncture had I told any of these two judges (justices M R Shah and Bela M Trivedi) about the nature of the matter. Who are the parties involved and what kind of matter and why the matter was to be listed the next day," Justice Lalit said in an interview with PTI.
"They simply went ahead with the idea that the chief was asking them that would they be a part of the bench, they simply agreed to be a part of the special bench. There was nothing what the social media is trying to project that it was well thought out or something," Justice Lalit, who demitted office on November 8 as the 49th CJI, said.
He said whatever happens before the bench, the CJI has no control on it and he cannot be a party to it. "My role as the CJI was to make the bench available when the occasion demands, then to see that a bench is constituted at the early stage," Justice Lalit said.
Elaborating further on the Saibaba matter, he said, "See this will require a good kind of explanation... on that day that it was a Friday and it was the last working day of Justice Hemant Gupta so the CJI's court rose early because the retiring judge normally sits with the CJI."
"The mentioning happened in court number two which was headed by Justice Chandrachud (the present CJI) and around 3:45 pm or so the matter was mentioned because there was urgency," Justice Lalit said.
The former CJI also spoke on a range of issues, including functioning of the Collegium system, women in judiciary, pendency of cases and listing of matters, especially before the Constitution benches.
On the criticism surrounding the Collegium system of 'judges appointing judges' in the higher judiciary, he said there is nothing wrong in it.
"The Collegium system is here to stay and it is an established norm where judges choose judges," he said, adding that the fundamentals of the system can be fine tuned.
Justice Lalit, to a question on short tenure of judges in the apex court, said in a country with enormous talent, it is better that judges retire and new judges come in regularly.
Asked about the US Supreme Court's system in which a judge is appointed for his or her lifetime, Justice Lalit pointed out that in the US and Canada, a very limited number of matters reach the Supreme Court.
"For instance, in Canada, they admit only 120 matters in a year. So, therefore, their calendar is 10 matters a month. If you go by that, we have, in our court on a Monday, we list about 600 or 900 matters," he said.
"Therefore, if you compare the sheer number of matters with which we grapple with, the number is enormous," Justice Lalit said.
On being asked about the steps taken by him for streamlining listing of cases in the Supreme Court, Justice Lalit said his experience of 37 years in the Supreme Court, 29 years as a lawyer and eight years as a judge, helped him in devising measures.
Justice Lalit said soon after he took over as the CJI, the first thing he did was to call a full court meeting of all judges of the Supreme Court. In this meeting, these issues were discussed threadbare for almost three hours, he said.
"It was after that a solution all of us thought would be the ideal solution, which will take care of the Constitution bench matters, the three-judge combination matters, the after-notice matters, which are almost 38,000 cases pending on the file of the court, and the fresh filing and everything. It was after that we devised this particular system," he said.
On the issue of tenure of judges in the apex court, Justice Lalit said, "In a country where talent is enormous, so therefore, it is better that judges retire and new judges, new talent comes, in regularly rather than having the same person occupying the post for 30 years."
Asked what he would like to do post-retirement, Justice Lalit said he is very fond of the languages spoken in India and would like to learn Bengali which is very "sweet and lovely like Roshogulla".
"I have also started taking online classes for Sanskrit and would try to go through Sanskrit literature," he said, adding that as of now, he knows and speaks Marathi, Hindi, English and Gujarati, and can understand the Punjabi language but cannot read its script.
Justice Lalit said he has an interest in literature and would like to go through the Vedas and the Puranas. "Till now, I have not decided or thought of authoring a book or biography," he said.
Born on November 9, 1957, Justice Lalit was appointed judge of the Supreme Court on August 13, 2014, and was sworn in as the 49th CJI on August 27. November 8 was his last day in office.