In 1962, when Puducherry was merged with India, the jurisdiction of the Madras High Court was extended to it. After several decades, in 2017, the Puducherry legislature unanimously resolved to have its own High Court, and the Madras High Court was informed on July 7, 2017. Prior to this, in April 2017, the Pondicherry Bar Association also passed a resolution seeking establishment of the High Court.
In August 2019, while addressing a State-level conference on legal services and Motor Accident Mediation Cells, Puducherry Chief Minister V. Narayanasamy said that “a Bench of the Madras High Court at Puducherry on the lines of the one set up in Madurai” was a felt need and sought the support of judges of the Supreme Court.
So, why should there be the need for a High Court at Puducherry? The Puducherry government spends exorbitant sums of money towards expenses of the large High Court. With not much of a population, this amount can be reduced to less than a quarter of the amount spent with a much smaller High Court for Puducherry.
In fact, according to the Constitution, when a common High Court is established for more than one State, administrative expenses have to be paid only from the consolidated fund of the ‘State’ in which the principal seat of the High Court is situated. However, this provision is breached with respect to Puducherry which shares the disproportionately exorbitant expenses with Tamil Nadu. On the other hand, administrative expenses of a High Court at the Union Territory shall be drawn from the ‘Consolidated fund of India’ under the Constitution.
A Puducherry High Court, with four to five judges, can ensure quick action on pendency of matters of the High Court matters, at least at Puducherry. In the All India Judges Association And Others vs Union Of India (Uoi) And Ors., the Supreme Court observed that the “time has now come for protecting one of the pillars of the Constitution, namely, the judicial system, by directing increase, in the first instance, in the Judge strength from the existing ratio of 10.5 or 13 per 10 lakhs people to 50 Judges for 10 lakh people”. This was also discussed in the Law Commission of India Report titled ‘Arrears and Backlog: Creating Additional Judicial (wo)manpower’, in 2014.
However as of 2016, the ratio is only 12 judges for one million population. This ratio at Puducherry can be increased if a separate High Court with four to five judges is established.
A data comparison
The number of cases filed and disposed of at Puducherry in 2010 is four times higher than the numbers at Sikkim, Manipur and Goa (with High Courts) put together. Therefore, the size of population and territory is irrelevant. Bigger States have more judges and staff, smaller States have lesser numbers of these.
The data collected by this writer show that in terms of the number of cases filed in 2010, the figures are: Sikkim (1,117), Manipur (637), Goa (4,984) and Puducherry (24,159). In terms of the number of cases decided, the numbers are: Sikkim (1,174), Manipur (495), Goa (3,646) and Puducherry (24,336).
Similarly, the memorandum provided by the All India Bar Association to the Chief Minister in 2017 shows that the number of cases disposed from Puducherry (28,631 cases) is three times more than the number of cases (9,031 cases) disposed by four High Courts (Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya and Sikkim) put together in 2016.
The presence of the Constitutional Court in the capital city acts as a check on the executive and legislature. Even the exercise of safeguarding fundamental rights involves travel, time and expenses. Several people often cite that litigants from western districts travel the long distance to Chennai. It defies logic why litigants from Puducherry need not be benefitted merely because other litigants are not benefitted, especially when the Constitution permits Puducherry to have its own High Court under Article 241.
Aiding Statehood demand
A High Court for Puducherry will also strengthen voices seeking Statehood. The Constitution enabled establishment of a legislature and Council of Ministers for certain Union Territories with the intent of providing them Statehood gradually. Out of the seven Union Territories originally placed under Article 239A, all except Puducherry were granted Statehood by 1989. Most Union Territories under 239A at least had Benches of High Courts when they attained Statehood. Tripura, Manipur, Meghalaya had Benches of the Gauhati High Court before they got their own High Courts. Interestingly, the Delhi High Court was established in 1966 before Delhi got its legislature in 1993.
Even a Bench of the Madras High Court as against a separate High Court at Puducherry is unfavourable because: Puducherry will still have to share the expenses of such a large High Court; judges might not prefer shuttling between Benches at Chennai, Puducherry and Madurai frequently; the protests against the setting up of the Madurai Bench a decade ago should be borne in mind. In fact, the presidential order establishing the Bench was challenged before the Madras High Court in 2004, just before commissioning the work; demand for a Bench of the High Court has always been met with stiff resistance from the Bar practising in the Court having jurisdiction. For instance, on December 12, 2019, Meerut MP Rajendra Agarwal pointed out in the Lok Sabha that “the U.P. Government had recommended a bench in 1955 but it’s the HC lawyers who always exert pressure not to allow the bench in Western UP”. Unlike Meerut, the advantage that Puducherry enjoys is that the Constitution enables Parliament to establish separate High Courts in Union Territories.
In March 2016, the Government of India had suggested to the writer that the establishment of a High Court will be taken up if the Puducherry government proposes the idea. However, the decision of the Puducherry legislature has still not been conveyed to the Central government.
Interestingly, though the 2017 resolution of the legislature seeks a High Court, authorities have on multiple occasions spoken of establishing a Bench of the Madras High Court. There is a popular notion that the establishment of a Bench of High Court is easier and economical as against the reality pointed out in this article. Therefore, the territorial administration should have clarity on this point.
The Puducherry government should now form a committee to prepare a comprehensive report and a draft Bill backing its proposal and forward it to the Central government. In this the nominated Lieutenant Governor and the elected Chief Minister must work in tandem.
Nirmalkumar Mohandoss is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court