“Men come and go, but institutions must go on …”
—Justice M.C. Chagla, former CJ, Bombay HC
Bombay High Court: In an endeavor to achieve what Justice Chagla expected of the Court when he spoke on completion of 100 years of Bombay High Court’s existence, the Bench of A.S. Oka and M.S. Sonak, JJ. issued a writ of mandamus directing the Government of Maharashtra to identify and offer a suitable land in Mumbai for construction of a new High Court building.
Need for a new High Court complex
Ahmad M. Abdi, a member of the Bar appearing in person, filed public interest litigation requesting the Court to enjoin the State Government to provide a new building for the Bombay High Court with fixtures, furniture and other infrastructure on a priority basis. The occasion for such a petition arose as it is felt by all the stakeholders that the present historic building which is around 140 years old is not sufficient anymore for the proper working of and administration of justice by the High Court due to manifold increase in the number of litigations, Judges, advocates, staff, case-record, etc. At the dawn, the Letters Patent of the Bombay High Court authorised the appointment of 15 judges; however, during last few years, not less than 35 Judges are sitting at the principal seat at Mumbai.
The Court highlighted a “very few” areas of lack of infrastructure. 22 such areas were illustrated which include:
- No waiting/standing space for litigants;
- Lack of common rooms for staff;
- No video conference rooms for the purpose of Court proceedings;
- Inadequacy of Bar rooms;
- No consultation rooms/premises for ADR facilities;
- Inadequate area for High Court Library;
- Record of cases including that of live cases has to be shifted to another premises;
- Makeshift Court rooms and Judges’ chambers;
- No scope of crowd management when more than 150-200 litigants come for a single matter; etc.
Thus, there has been a long felt need for an integrated Court complex considering the requirements of “not only 21st century but also the 22nd century”. The Court observed, “there is a need to think about future requirements for 100 and more years. If the persons who are now at the helm of affairs ignore the same, the future generation will blame them”.
Legal Obligation of the State
The Court cited the case of Brij Mohan Lal v. Union of India, (2012) 6 SCC 502 wherein the Supreme Court considered the obligation of the State in the context of Judicial infrastructure in the light of provisions of Articles 21 and 39-A of the Constitution. Reference was also made to the case of All India Judges Assn. v. Union of India, 2018 SCC OnLine SC 971 which laid down detailed guidelines about the infrastructure to be provided to the Courts by all the States. It was observed, “the plea (by the State) of financial limitations or constraints can hardly be justified as a valid excuse for not providing infrastructure to the judiciary”. It was noted that there were various authorities such as MHADA and MMRDA holding large chunks of land in the city and thus the Government could not shy away from its responsibility by giving excuses of non-availability of land and high cost if compulsory acquisition.
The Court held thus that it is a legal obligation of the State Government to provide a large plot of land for new Court complex.
Views of the High Court to have primacy
A matter in issue was — “on the aspects of area required for and the design of the new complex and the infrastructure to be provided therein, whether the views of the State Government or the High Court will prevail?”
Observing, “if the State is to be treated as the sole Judge to decide what should be the infrastructure provided to this Court, it will directly affect the independence of Judiciary”, the Court decided that that only Judiciary can determine what infrastructure it needs for its effective functioning. The State Government cannot decide how many Courtrooms, offices and other facilities the High Court needs.
Location and area of the new site
Stress was laid on the accessibility of the Court complex to the litigants. The Government had proposed allotment of a plot at Pahadi Goregaon, but it was seen that this site was not easily accessible to the litigants and the lawyers, and the suggestion was made considering the aspect of suitability.
According to High Court Administration, a plot of land having an area of 20,23 hectare was required for setting up the new complex. However, the Government came up with a case that only 6.02 hectares were available for allotment to the High Court out of Bandra Government Colony. It was held that such calculation was based on incorrect reading of the requirements submitted by the High Court Administration. Furthermore, it was also stressed that if the High Court complex is relocated than a provision will also have to made for the construction of lawyers’ chambers in its close proximity, a fact that was being ignored by the State Government.
Order of the Court
Lastly, the Court observed that “by continuing functioning of the High Court in a building which is rendered unsuitable with the passage of time, the State Government is effectively denying access to justice to the litigants”. In such view of the matter the Court passed the following order:
- State Government shall take appropriate decision of offering a large and convenient plot of land for construction of High Court complex. The decision is to be taken within six months (the Court has stated this period to be within six months in sub-para (i) of Para 45 of its judgment; however at two other places, the period is stated to be within three months);
- While doing so, it is also to be considered whether additional area of 11.68 hectare (earmarked for sale) in addition to area of 6.02 hectare at Bandra (East) can be offered;
- State Government shall reconsider its decision of not allotting a plot of lawyers’ chambers;
- If the Government proposal is approved by the High Court Administration, adequate funds have to be provided to it for construction of Court complex, for development of land and for providing infrastructure.
The matter is directed to be listed on 2-8-2019 for reporting compliance with the directions by the State Government. [Ahmad M. Abdi v. State of Maharashtra, 2019 SCC OnLine Bom 89, dated 22-01-2019]