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Post mortem: CJI Dattu's social justice bench experiment is now history, pending cases distributed to others

The social justice bench comprising justices Madan B Lokur and UU Lalit, set up by the previous chief justice of India, justice HL Dattu on 12 December 2014 has now officially ceased, and the cases which were part-heard before that bench, have been distributed to other benches.

During Justice Dattu’s tenure, the Supreme Court formally set up the bench through a release, justified the setting up of the bench on the ground that several cases relating to the domain of social justice were pending for years, and that they should be given a specialized approach for their early disposal, so that the masses would realize the fruits of the rights provided to them by the constitutional text.

The bench was set up with a view to monitor the social justice matters on a regular basis, by sitting on every working Friday at 2 pm.  

The bench was entrusted not only with pending matters, but also fresh cases.

The court had identified the following matters as worthy of regular hearing by the bench, as they are some of the areas where the constitutional mechanism has to play a proactive role in order to meet the goals of the Constitution:

Release of surplus food grains lying in stocks for the use of people living in the drought affected areas;

to frame a fresh scheme for public distribution of food grains;

to take steps to prevent untimely death of the women and children for want of nutritious food;

providing hygienic mid-day meal besides issues relating to children;

to provide night shelter to the destitute and homeless;

to provide medical facilities to all the children irrespective of their economic conditions;

to provide hygienic drinking water;

to provide safety and secured living conditions for the fair gender who are forced into prostitution, etc.

The bench did try to deal with matters entrusted to it as sincerely as possible - so much so that court No 9 where it used to sit every Friday at 2pm became synonymous with social justice matters that day. 

The bench did not sit only during vacations, and when the constitution bench dealing with the challenges to NJAC was holding its hearing. 

Justice Lokur was part of the NJAC bench.

Success?

The bench, which dealt with a variety of social justice matters, however, had evoked mixed reactions. 

There were some who deplored the leniency of the bench in granting adjournments, just for the asking by the parties concerned, especially by the Government. 

This, to some, resulted in the failure of the bench to dispose of a single matter being heard by it.

Others hailed the manner Justice Lokur used to grill the authorities, and goaded them to action, making considerable progress in many cases. 

The bench used both persuasion and warnings, where appropriate, to seek results as many of the cases before it were PIL matters, and were devoid of adversarial litigation.

Out with the old?

The new CJI, Justice TS Thakur’s decision to do away with the bench has evinced mixed reactions. 

Convinced about the commitment of the Lokur-Lalit bench to the cause of social justice, some wonder whether other benches would be equally inclined to pursue each case to its logical culmination. 

They cite for instance, how one of the petitions, filed by the Trained Nurses Association of India, earlier heard by the social justice bench, was disposed of today at the very first hearing by Justice Anil R Dave-led bench. The petition sought better pay scales and service benefits to nurses all over India.  

The new bench asked the Centre to form a committee to make recommendations, after making a study of the pay scales of nurses in private hospitals within a month, and directed the state to implement them within six months thereafter. 

Had the social justice bench continued to hear the matter, it would have preferred to monitor the results of its directions, for a few months.

Others, however, disagree.  They believe that if social justice matters are heard by only one bench, and if the composition of the bench changes, none can guarantee the commitment of the bench to monitor such cases, and as a result, all social justice matters may suffer.

Instead, if such matters are fairly distributed across all the benches, there may be considerable hope that at least some would see the light of the day, they say.  

Apart from the Trained Nurses Association of India case, other cases, which were earlier heard by the social justice bench, but were listed before other benches were as follows:

Karma Dorjee & Ors v. Union of India: This is about the concerns of the people of the North East living in other parts of the country

Savelife Foundation v. Union of India: This is about the protection of Good Samaritans, who assist the victims of road accidents

The case Re-Inhuman conditions in 1382 prisons - also heard by social justice bench earlier - was listed before a bench which included Justice Lokur and Justice RK Agrawal.

Despite the breaking of Lokur-Lalit bench, it seems that the bench will specially meet to hear the ongoing Manipur encounters case, which is nearing a decisive stage.

The case was last heard on 14 January and the bench is scheduled to sit again on 12 February to hear the matter.

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