Constitutional Benches of SC: Formation, Significant Judgments, and Emerging Challenges

Constitutional Benches of SC: Formation, Significant Judgments, and Emerging Challenges

A Constitution Bench in the Supreme Court of India is a special bench that is formed to deal with important matters, particularly those related to the interpretation of the Constitution. Unlike the commonly seen Division Benches of two or three judges, Constitution Benches are typically consists of five or more judges. convened for specific, non-routine cases.

As per Article 145(3) of the Constitution, a minimum of five judges are required to decide any case that involves a substantial question of law regarding the interpretation of the Constitution.

Circumstances for Setting Up Constitution Benches:

  • Interpretation of the Constitution:

    • Convened under Article 145(3) for cases involving substantial questions of constitutional law.

  • Presidential Reference:

    • Formed when the President seeks the Supreme Court's opinion on legal or factual questions under Article 143.

  • Resolving Conflicting Judgments:

    • Constituted when there's a conflict in judgments from three-judge benches on the same legal point.

  • Ad Hoc Basis:

    • Set up as needed based on the above conditions.

Significant Cases Decided by Constitution Benches in recent times:

  • Ayodhya Land Dispute Case (2019): One of the most notable examples is the Ayodhya land dispute judgment. A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi delivered the landmark judgment, resolving a dispute that had been ongoing for several decades.

  • Sabarimala Review Petitions (2019): A Constitution Bench of five judges considered the review petitions against the Supreme Court's earlier judgment allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple. The bench referred the matter to a larger seven-judge bench.

  • Right to Privacy Case (2017): A nine-judge Constitution Bench unanimously recognized the right to privacy as a fundamental right under the Constitution. This decision significantly impacted various aspects of law and policy in India.

  • Validity of Aadhaar Act (2018): A five-judge Constitution Bench upheld the constitutional validity of the Aadhaar Act but with certain restrictions and changes, impacting millions of residents and several government policies.

  • Decriminalization of Homosexuality (2018): A five-judge Constitution Bench decriminalized homosexuality by striking down parts of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, marking a historic judgment in the field of LGBT rights in India.

Formation of Constitutional Benches:

  • Decision Authority:

    • The Chief Justice of India (CJI) holds the authority to decide on the formation of Constitution Benches.

  • Key Decisions by the CJI:

    • Selection of Cases: CJI decides which cases are significant enough to be heard by a Constitution Bench.

    • Number of Judges: Determines the number of judges to sit on the bench, depending on the case's importance and complexity.

    • Composition of the Bench: Chooses the judges who will comprise the Constitution Bench.

  • Discretion of the CJI:

    • There are no specific guidelines for these decisions; the CJI exercises sole discretion.

    • This flexibility allows the CJI to consider the unique needs of each case.

  • CJI’s Participation:

    • It is not mandatory for the CJI to be a member of the Constitution Bench.

    • The CJI may choose to be a part of the bench or delegate the responsibility to other senior judges.

  • Historical Precedent:

    • The largest Constitution Bench in the history of the Indian judiciary was a 13-judge bench in the landmark case of Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala.

    • This case set a precedent for the formation of large benches for cases of significant constitutional importance.

Challenges before Constitutional Benches:

  • Case Backlog and Delayed Justice:

    • For example, the case regarding the constitutional validity of the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) saw delays due to the backlog, impacting the judicial appointment process.

  • Complexity of Cases:

    • The Ayodhya land dispute case, involving intricate historical, religious, and legal aspects, exemplifies the complexity often encountered by Constitutional Benches.

  • Limited Number of Judges:

    • The constraint of limited judges affects the frequency and formation of Constitution Benches, as seen in the delay of hearings in cases like the challenge to the abrogation of Article 370.

  • Lengthy Judgments:

    • The Aadhaar judgment, which is one of the longest in the Supreme Court's history, indicates how extensive judgments can be time-consuming to draft and finalize.

  • Inconsistent Precedents:

    • Differing interpretations in cases like the Sabarimala temple entry issue show how varying judgments can create legal ambiguities.

  • Resource Constraints:

    • The Supreme Court's handling of numerous cases with limited resources can be seen in the delays and scheduling challenges in high-stakes cases.

  • Rising Legal and Constitutional Challenges:

    • The continual evolution of issues like privacy rights, as evidenced in the Right to Privacy judgment, reflects the growing complexity of constitutional challenges.

  • Pressure of Public Scrutiny:

    • High-profile cases like the decriminalization of Section 377 faced immense public scrutiny, reflecting the pressure on the Bench to balance legal reasoning with societal expectations.

  • Balancing Judicial Independence and Accountability:

    • Cases involving electoral bonds and political funding highlight the challenge of maintaining judicial independence while facing political and public pressures.

  • Technological and Administrative Support:

    • The necessity for better technological support was evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the court had to swiftly adapt to virtual hearings.

These examples illustrate the multifaceted challenges Constitutional Benches face, emphasizing the need for judicial reforms and the enhancement of resources to maintain the efficacy and integrity of India’s highest judicial body.

Way Forward:

  • Judge Strength Formula: Implementing the 112th Law Commission of India's recommendation for a fixed formula to determine the number of judges.

  • All-India Judicial Services (AIJS): Introduction of AIJS, ensuring consensus within the judiciary for its implementation.

  • Minimizing Adjournments: Encouraging the judiciary to limit the practice of seeking adjournments, making it an exception rather than a norm.

Advait IAS