Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud on December 16 said no Vacation Benches will be available in the apex court during the winter break.
The oral announcement came a day after Law Minister Kiren Rijiju reportedly criticised the "long vacations" of the court and the inconvenience it caused to litigants.
However, according to a circular issued by the Supreme Court on September 29 this year, a senior Supreme Court Registry official is specially deputed as a ‘Vacation Officer’. This officer could be approached by any advocate seeking urgent relief either on court holidays or during after-court hours. In such instances, a Bench would be constituted, if required.
Friday is the last working day before the court goes into winter recess. The apex court will re-open only next year, on January 2. The calendar for the year 2023 shows the court would not be fully functional for nearly 180 days, including weekends and holidays. The court's pendency as on December 1 is 69,598 cases. There are currently six judicial vacancies in the court.
Vacation is also a time for judges to work harder, writing judgments, travelling, administrative work and preparing cases for hearings. It is also a period of recuperation. The past year had seen the court come out of hard days of the pandemic and take on the increased pendency. Judges have been hearing 80 cases, on some days, up to 100 cases a day. Many Constitution Benches have reserved their judgments and would use the winter holidays to author them.
Vacation Benches are Special Benches which can be designated by the Chief Justice of India during summer and winter holidays to hear ‘urgent matters’, which include pleas concerning bail, habeas corpus and other fundamental rights’ issues.
Rule 6 of Order II of The Supreme Court Rules, 2013, provide that the “Chief Justice may appoint one or more Judges to hear during summer vacation or winter holidays all matters of an urgent nature which under these rules may be heard by a Judge sitting singly, and, whenever necessary, he may likewise appoint a Division Court for the hearing of urgent cases during the vacation which require to be heard by a Bench of Judges”.
For a long time in its history, the court had Vacation Benches only during the May-June summer break. It usually did not have a Vacation Bench sitting during the winter holidays.
However, it was the 45th Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra who broke the convention and constituted two Vacation Benches for the winter break in 2017 and went one step further by heading one of the Benches himself. He was at the time busy hearing accident compensation cases of survivors who had been waiting for a long time for justice.
It was also the first for a Chief Justice of India to head a Vacation Bench. Usually junior judges constituted Vacation Benches. The recent years have seen the court cut short the summer break by a week or so, faced by criticism that its vacations were long.
Vacation Benches of the Supreme Court have also authored historical decisions. One of the best known is when Justice Krishna Iyer, sitting singly as a Vacation Bench Judge in June 1975, refused Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's plea to stay an Allahabad High Court decision setting aside her election – a decision which triggered the Emergency. A Constitution Bench of the court had heard the triple talaq case during vacation days.