It happens often that an individual fights a case up to the Supreme Court and gets relief for himself. At the same time, others in a similar position who have slumbered over their rights derive benefit from the order. These dormant beneficiaries may not have moved a finger, and often may not even be aware of the bonanza unless they come to know of it by chance.
For instance, the Supreme Court ruled in its judgment last month, Premji vs State of Gujarat, that owners of land acquired by the state are entitled to three times what the government offered as compensation. The land acquisition proceedings were not conducted properly and the land owners’ right to proper reimbursement had been ignored.
The appeal was fought by only one person from the bottom of the legal ladder. He lost his case in the Gujarat High Court. He moved the Supreme Court. It tripled the compensation amount. Not only that, the court went ahead and ordered that others who did not approach the courts were also entitled to the same benefit.
Other land owners had not approached the court, perhaps because of the time, expense and gamble involved in litigating against unsympathetic authorities. Yet many of them have had the prize dropped into their hands. All that they should do is cite the judgment to be able to demand the high compensation. This happens in several other cases.
In such cases in which many people have been denied their rights, and only one of them pursues the case, the Supreme Court has invoked Article 142 of the Constitution granting it power to pass orders to do “complete justice”. Though this is a rare discretionary power, in deserving cases like the one mentioned, the court has not hesitated to exercise it to benefit many. In one such case, Prabhakar Rao vs State of AP, the court stated that it is better to “err on the side of justice than that of law”.
There are many examples of such cases in which benefits are conferred without asking. Service cases and admission to educational institutions are the most common. In an old case, BN Nagarajan vs State of Mysore, the issue was appointment of engineers. The high court had quashed their appointments. One person brought the case up to the Supreme Court. Not only did he win his case, but the court order also saved the employment of hundreds of others.
Invoking the constitutional provision, the court stated, “We may mention that some of the appellants have not prosecuted their appeals, but there is no reason why they should not have the benefit of this judgment...We direct that in order to do complete justice they should also have the benefit of the judgment given by us.”
In the past two decades, the Supreme Court and high courts have had to deal with scores of cases regarding admissions to professional colleges. It is difficult to track all judgments in these cases, mostly involving the messy issues of reservations and quotas. Some questions have been referred to larger Benches. It is difficult for a young candidate to traverse all these orders and find out where he fits. Local lawyers’ help might be necessary in such cases.
A US jurist has observed that “no species of knowledge is more in demand or confers more real and constant usefulness than that of law and its practical application in both private and public affairs of each individual, and no species of knowledge is more difficult to obtain at the desired moment”. Despite legal websites, an ordinary person will find it difficult to get the information needed from the mass of laws and judgments riddled with legalese.
One way to track legal developments is to follow assiduously news as reported in the media, with all its shortcomings. The courts do not give publicity to their judgments. Their habit is to deliver orders and retract to the black shell. No handouts or press meets like the articulate arms of the state.
This situation, along with increased awareness of legal rights, has sharpened the hunger for legal news. Not long ago, for instance, only some 10 news correspondents reported from the Supreme Court. Their number has gone up at least five times. OB vans routinely create traffic jams near Delhi courts.
The importance of legal reporting is clear from the fact that a five-judge Constitution Bench has entered the second month of brainstorming aimed at laying down guidelines for reporting crime and court proceedings. This is a field in which few courts in the democratic world have entered. It has stirred intense criticism. Some senior lawyers have asked the Bench headed by the Chief Justice to disband itself. Another suggested that if the judges are easily swayed by sensational crime reporting, the guidelines should include one that bars judges from reading newspapers, watching TV, and now accessing social media.