CJI's trailblazing legal legacy: Kapadia set to demit office after reinforcing faith in judiciary

Chief Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia will walk out of the Supreme Court (SC) on September 29, but he will leave behind a streamlined court registry, trend-setting judgments and an example of judicial conduct worth emulating for judges in the times to come.

Justice Kapadia has consciously avoided interviews and social interactions as an old school judge but volumes can be written about him, with his judgments and administrative decisions laying bare his legal acumen, his philosophy as a judge and his intolerance to corruption.

A month before he took over as Chief Justice of India (CJI) in May 2010, he made it clear that he would opt for the conservative approach rather than follow the new tradition set by some of his predecessors who interacted with the media before taking over and after relinquishing the job as the head of the judiciary.

'I don't want only 300 million people to prosper at the cost of the remaining 700 million. This is where the judiciary, while deciding matters, has to keep certain consequences in mind', Chief Justice of India Justice SH Kapadia

'I don't want only 300 million people to prosper at the cost of the remaining 700 million. This is where the judiciary, while deciding matters, has to keep certain consequences in mind', Chief Justice of India Justice SH Kapadia

He will air his views only through seminars and lectures, his office told the writer while courteously turning down a request for an interview before he took over as CJI. And he stuck to his stand.

Justice Kapadia has keen interest in Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and has been a strict disciplinarian. 'I started my career as a Class IV employee and the only asset I possess is integrity,' he said.

His judgments, his manner of conducting court proceedings and the administrative steps taken by him to streamline work in the apex court registry throw enough light on his character.

Chief Justice Kapadia's Record

He likes to be organised, gives priority to work, detests indiscipline and frowns upon unnecessary expenditure from the state exchequer.

Some judgments by Justice Kapadia before he was elevated as CJI show that he cannot withstand corruption and does not mind writing a dissent if his colleagues differ with him on the issue.

'In the end it may be stated that the true value of a decision lies in its propriety and not in the decision being right or wrong,' he said, in a dissenting judgment in a corruption case in 2006.

Though he favoured an unhindered business environment, he made it clear in his law day speech in 2011 that he was for a policy which favoured the maximum number of people.

'I don't want only 300 million people to prosper at the cost of the remaining 700 million.'

His statement should be seen in the backdrop of the fact that the law minister in his speech before him had justified the government's decision to go for FDI in retail despite opposition from various quarters.

Justice Kapadia prefers to go strictly by the rules and makes every effort to honour the separation of powers between various organs of the government but does not hesitate from intervening, if required, in the interest of the rule of law.

People will remember him for his views against corruption in the P. J. Thomas case. The fact that he did not go for a summer vacation after taking over as CJI showed his commitment towards work.

He made best use of the vacation to look at the problems in the court registry and streamlined the process of filing and listing of cases. His target was to improve the image of the judiciary which had taken a beating in recent years.

'We do not mind a studied, fair criticism. The problem is with generalisation… Please do not bring the entire institution into disrepute.'

Justice Kapadia may not have been the best of administrators but he got down to work from day one and results followed. In December 2010, the CJI dispatched letters to all high courts to dispose of corruption cases on a priority basis.

He issued a similar directive to the apex court registry. His effort led to computers taking over the work of allocation of cases to various SC benches.

This was aimed at bringing about transparency and doing away with manual intervention which had left scope for manipulation. He also put an end to the practice of lawyers directly mentioning a case before any bench for urgent relief.

Apart from reorienting the listing procedure, the CJI decided to make optimum use of modern technology to arrest delay by permitting notice to parties though e-mail in urgent commercial cases.

Justice Kapadia stressed on the need to look at the problem of pendency in a realist way and created a statistics department for compiling and storing data relating to case management. Interestingly, the SC, thereafter, corrected its statistics on arrears by removing cases less than one year old from the list.

While addressing a gathering, the Chief Justice surprised everyone by stating that though over three crore cases were pending before various courts, the actual arrears was just a little over a crore.

There is a vast difference between arrears and pendency, he added. With lack of funds hurting the justice delivery system, Justice Kapadia took the matter on the judicial side and issued directions for release of funds.

Justice SH Kapadia will hand over the baton to Justice Altamas Kabir after he demits office as Chief Justice of India

Justice SH Kapadia will hand over the baton to Justice Altamas Kabir after he demits office as Chief Justice of India

Justice Altamas Kabir

He admitted that it was not for courts to issue such directions but stressed it was necessary to uphold the rule of law.

With work being his first priority, he set an example by deciding not to go on foreign trips for conferences and seminars at the cost of work.

Breaking the tradition set by his predecessors, Justice Kapadia turned down a request to attend the 74th Biennial Conference of the International Law Association (ILA) at Hague from August 15 to August 20, 2010, because the apex court was in session.

There was no sitting SC judge at the conference despite the CJI being the ex-officio head of the India-chapter of the society, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2010.

It is said that a judge speaks through his judgments.

This is very true for Justice Kapadia who has always followed the conservative approach in this regard and kept his interactions with the outside world to the minimum.

In what reinforced faith of the people in the judiciary, his judgments sent a clear message that when it came to delivery of justice, the court meant business. Justice Kapadia never thinks twice when it comes to intervening in matters relating to corruption, environmental degradation or non-performance of duties by any authority. 

He, however, does not believe in promising more than he can deliver.

After taking over as CJI, he dismissed a large number of PILs pending before the court for years.

He stressed that it was no use entertaining matters where judicial intervention could not ensure results. He, however, made it clear that he was not against PILs.

It was on a PIL that he quashed Thomas's appointment as Central Vigilance Commissioner despite stiff resistance from the government. He propounded the principle of 'institutional integrity' to quash the appointment of a person who, otherwise, seemed to fulfill the eligibility criteria.

The ruling in the case will be a precedent for all times to come and will help the court quash an appointment without going into the merits of the charges against a person.

His forte is business laws and he has left his footprint as far as precedents are concerned - the last being the Vodafone case which can be cited in foreign courts as well.

His judgment in the case might have cost the government dear but this did not come in the way of enforcing the right of a foreign investor.

'Even if the foreign investor has no fundamental right, let them know, that the rule of law prevails in this country,' he said.

The arbitration judgment by a bench presided over by him accepted that Indian courts will not have jurisdiction over awards passed in a foreign country even if it concerned property or business in India.

When it came to the right of people in general and the rights of an industry, he was clear the balance would have to tilt in favour of the former.

'When it comes to enforcement of right to life under Article 21 (which includes right to clean environment), we have to go by rights and profit comes later,' he said while banning mining in Karnataka.

Some of his judgments delivered even before he took over as CJI have been harsh on the government.

The much-talked about Nagraj judgment, which is sought to be overruled by a constitutional amendment to make way for reservation in promotion without any statistics on SC/ST employees in government jobs, was delivered by him.

In a strongly-worded and much convincing dissent in Lalu Prasad's case, Justice Kapadia said courts were bound to interfere when scams take place and there are allegations of people making money from them.

Though the majority opinion prevailed in the case, his opinion will continue to be valued.


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