“adjournment culture”

There is a popular commercial by a furniture maker running on television which uses a courtroom as the setting to demonstrate the long-lasting abilities of its plywood. Two young lawyers are arguing a matter about a buffalo which apparently caused damages to the Plaintiff, prompting him to seek damages from the owner of the buffalo. The Respondent’s demand is that the buffalo, being the alleged culprit, must be produced in court as a witness, leading to an uproar in the court and prompting the judge to adjourn the matter. Months turn to years and decades go by and the lawyers and the judge, now sprightly octogenarians, are still at the same stage at which they were at the beginning of the case. The plywood table stands mute spectator to the going-ons in the court room with the voice-over saying tongue-in-cheek “Chalta Rahe, Chalta Rahe” (It goes on and on).

Real-life court room business is, however, unfortunately, not as humourous as in the commercial and the gross delay in the disposal of matters is not a matter to be taken lightly. Matters reached a head a few days ago in the High Court when repeated adjournments sought by the lawyers prompted a sharp rebuke from the Hon’ble Chief Justice.

“This is an unhappy state of affairs” the exasperated Chief Justice Swatanter Kumar is reported to have said, as the day progressed and more requests for adjournment came in, with most of them being sought due to the absence of counsels or lack of preparation by lawyers.

The Times of India reported that finally, towards the end of the day, the CJ announced that he would be willing to hear any case if lawyers from both sides were willing to argue. No one came forward, and the bench comprising the Chief Justice and Justice J P Devdhar had no option but to call it a day. It was also reported that what triggered the Chief’s outburst was that the Court had, for the past several days, been forced to adjourn the court by 3.30 or 4 pm (instead of the 5 pm closing time) because lawyers from either side were not prepared to argue and sought an adjournment.

Other judges had a similar unpleasant experience. The Mumbai Mirror reported that Justice Bilal Nazki, on his first day in the Court upon transfer from Andhra Pradesh, was exasperated by the delaying tactics employed by the lawyers, who keep seeking adjournments with all sorts of excuses. The judge, who was left with no matters to hear by 12.30 pm, came down heavily on the lawyers and made it clear that he would not tolerate requests for repeated adjournments.

The DNA reported that the malaise had also struck the consumer courts and that it took a typical consumer case three to four years to reach resolution. It observed that in August 2002, the Supreme Court took a serious view of the backlog of consumer disputes and the tendency to seek repeated adjournments. Commenting during the Dr JJ Merchant & Ors vs. Shrinath Chaturvedi case, the apex court directed district forums to “evolve a procedure of levying heavy cost where adjournment is sought by a party on one or the other ground”. It also asked consumer forums to follow the time limit and the prescribed procedures more strictly. Of course, none of this has helped matters much.

It also reported the case of Vishnu Manjucha , 60, who filed a suit at the tender age of 22 and today – 38 long years later – is still waiting for a verdict. Praying for an early decision, Vishnu breaks into a toothless smile and says, “I hope this case is decided in my lifetime and not passed on to the next generation.”

The Tribunal does not fare any better in this respect. It is common for more than half of the matters on the cause-list being adjourned on one pretext or the other.

There seems to be an “adjournment culture” in the Country’s judicial system. There appear to be several reasons for this. One reason, at least in the Tribunal, is the ‘expectation’ that a matter which is listed for the first time or thereafter, will be adjourned to enable the filing of a Paper-Book though the notice informing the date of the hearing itself would have been sent several weeks ago. The other reason, again applicable to the Tribunal, is the uncertainty regarding the constitution of the Bench. Human nature being what it is – preparation is put off till the last minute – in the ‘expectation’ that the Bench will not function and if it does, one is left with no option but to seek an adjournment. Yet another reason, perhaps applicable to all judicial forums, is the fact that counsels accept multiple briefs to argue, even if all are listed on the same day. This has resulted in a peculiar catch-22 situation because the counsel feel that they must accept multiple briefs as they might otherwise be left with no work in the event of an adjournment. However, if they do get busy with one matter, all other matters have to be per-force adjourned. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that there are only a handful of well-known counsels who are ‘trusted’ by the litigants to handle large matters. If the chosen counsel is not available on the appointed date, it becomes very difficult for the litigant to find a replacement at short notice. He will also be dissatisfied by the fact that his counsel of choice is not there to represent him.

Some judges do their bit to resolve the crises by challenging the reasons and the need for adjournment. They also make it a point to grant only a short adjournment and threaten the litigant with an ex-parte order if he is not ready to argue the matter on the adjourned date. However, unless there is a carefully thought-out and comprehensive policy of reforms aimed at removing the root cause of the “adjournment culture” such knee-jerk reactions are unlikely to have the desired result.

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