Category Archives: Judicial Evasion

Judicial Censorship and Judicial Evasion: The Depressing Story of Jolly LLB 2

In 2013, Jolly LLB, a comedic satire about the Indian legal profession, ran into legal trouble. Two lawyers initiated “public interest litigation” in the Delhi High Court, asking the Court to direct the Film Certification Board to cancel the license that it had granted to the film under the Cinematograph Act. The Court dismissed the PIL, finding nothing of “public interest” in it, and also finding it to be premature, because it had been filed purely on the basis of trailers. An appeal to the Supreme Court was dismissed in limine, Justice Lodha memorably remarking, “if you don’t like it, don’t watch it.”

Four years later, the sequel, Jolly LLB 2, was not so lucky. This time, another petitioner tried his luck in the Bombay High Court, and after a series of proceedings that I shall proceed to describe, succeeded in having the Court direct “cuts” to the film. In between, the filmmakers went to the Supreme Court, which declined to interfere.

What has happened with Jolly LLB 2 over the last two weeks reveals a confluence between two alarming trends that I have highlighted before: judicial censorship (the Court censoring speech without the authority of any law) and judicial evasion (the Court effectively deciding cases without adjudicating them – i.e., without passing reasoned judgments – simply by keeping them hanging).

The Events

On January 20, it was reported that a lawyer had filed a petition before the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court, arguing that the trailers of the film revealed an “attempt to project the Indian Judiciary and the Indian legal system in a derogatory manner.” The petitioner had a problem with the fact that scenes in the film showed lawyers dancing in the court, and people playing cards, and asked that the word “LLB” be dropped from the the title of the film.

Instead of dismissing this petition at the threshold, the Bombay High Court issued notice on January 27 and asked the filmmakers to reply. On January 30, the Court found that there was a “prima facie” case of contempt of court. It ordered that the petition be converted into a PIL, and constituted a three-member committee (out of which two members were lawyers) to watch the film, and submit their report on Monday (February 6).

Since the film was scheduled to be released on Friday, February 10, the producers moved the Supreme Court on February 3. Before the Supreme Court, it was argued that the Bombay High Court had no jurisdiction to pass the order that it did, because, effectively, it was setting up a parallel censorship mechanism that had no basis in any law. Instead of deciding the jurisdictional question, the Supreme Court reposted the case for hearing on Tuesday, one day after the Bombay High Court-appointed “committee” was to submit its “report”.

On Monday, February 6, the “Committee” submitted its “Report”, recommending the deletion of four scenes from the film. The producers attempted a compromise, promising a partial deletion. The Bombay High Court accepted this compromise, and passed an order requiring deletion and re-certification of the film.

On Tuesday, February 7 (i.e., today morning), the producers appeared before the Supreme Court, and withdrew their petition challenging the Bombay High Court’s order of January 30, while keeping the question of law open.

Judicial Censorship by the Bombay High Court

Let us first consider the Bombay High Court’s actions in finding a prima facie case of “contempt”, and deciding to set up a “Committee” to watch the film. The procedure for the certification of films is contained in the Cinematograph Act of 1952. The Act makes it clear that film certification is to be conducted by a Board of Censors, who are to take their decision in accordance with the freedom of speech provisions in the Constitution, and government-mandated guidelines. If a person is aggrieved by the Board’s refusal to grant a certificate, or to grant a certificate that only allows restricted viewing, she may appeal to an appellate Tribunal (note that the Act only contemplates an appeal in the case a certificate is denied or restricted; it does not contemplate a person appealing in cases where a certificate is granted – for obvious and good reasons).

What role does a Court have in these proceedings? The short answer is: none. The statutory body that decides on the issue of certifying films for public exhibition, and on requiring cuts and modifications, is the Censor Board, with an appeal lying to an Appellate Tribunal (under the Act, the Government also has revisional powers). Under the Cinematograph Act, the Courts have no power to certify, modify, or refuse certification of films.

Of course, this does not mean that the Courts are excluded altogether. Film-makers and producers who believe that the Board – and the Appellate Tribunal – have acted illegally in denying a certificate or requiring cuts, and have violated their right to free speech, can approach the High Court (and, if that fails, the Supreme Court). The Courts can – and have – set aside decisions of the Board and the Tribunal on this basis.

Another way in which the Courts get involved is if, notwithstanding the Censor certificate, there is an allegation that the film has broken the law. To what (limited) extent a censor certificate grants film producers “safe harbour” from prosecution has been long-debated in the Courts, but is not of relevance to this case.

The third way in which the Courts can get involved is if third parties object to the grant of a certificate by the Censor Board, and move the Court against that decision. This is what was famously done in the Phoolan Devi CaseThe grant of an “A” certificate to the film was challenged by members of the Gujjar community before the High Court. The High Court quashed the certificate. The Supreme Court set aside the judgment of the High Court.

One might begin by asking what standing a third person has to challenge the grant of a film certificate by a Tribunal to a film-producer; however, the limitless rules of standing that now exist in Indian Courts have made that question more or less redundant. Let us assume, then, that a third person approaches the Court (as in this case), and argues that the Censor Board misapplied the provisions of the Cinematograph Act and the Guidelines, and wrongly granted the Certificate. In the first instance, it is important to note that, in light of the fact that the Cinematograph Act clearly envisages the Board as the certifying authority, the Court should not lightly substitute its views for those of the Board (a proposition that has been repeatedly upheld); the Court should only intervene when there is a clear illegality in the grant of the certificate. There is, however, a further question: what form should that intervention make? It is here that it becomes crucial to note that in the absence of a law that authorises it to do so, a Court cannot censor speech. As I have pointed out before, under Article 19(2) of the Constitution, speech can only be restricted by a “law” made by the “State”. For the purposes of Article 19(2), it has been held multiple times that the Court is not the State, and its orders are not “law”.

Consequently, in the absence of a law, it is not for the Court to order cuts to a filmAt best, the Court can find that the Censor Board made an error, point out what the error was, and then remand the case back to the Board to decide once more in accordance with law (the Bombay High Court’s 6th February order does ask the Censor Board to re-certify the film, but also makes it clear what the cuts are).

What the Court certainly cannot do is to set up an entirely parallel censorship authority – in this case, a “committee” of three people to watch the film and suggest cuts. No law contemplates that, and since Article 19(1)(a) is abundantly clear on the requirement of a “law” for censoring speech, the Bombay High Court’s setting up of the “committee” was entirely without jurisdiction. It is an instance of what I have called “judicial censorship“, a trend that is growing frighteningly in recent times.

Judicial Evasion by the Supreme Court

Before the Supreme Court, this exact plea – that the Bombay High Court had no jurisdiction to set up a parallel censorship authority – was taken. To this threshold question, the Supreme Court made a truly astonishing remark: it told the film producers to go and raise this objection at the High Court itself. On being informed that the objection had been made only to be rejected, the Supreme Court then said: “the Committee will make its report on Monday. We’ll keep the matter for Tuesday. Come back to us then if you have a problem.”

In other words, when it was argued before the Supreme Court that the Bombay High Court had illegally set a procedure (for censorship) in motion, the Supreme Court’s answer was “let’s wait and see what the outcome of this disputed procedure is, and then you come back to us.” This is patently illogical. The Supreme Court had to decide the question one way or the other: either to uphold the High Court’s jurisdiction in setting up a “committee”, or to set it aside. It elected to do neither.

However, the Supreme Court’s non-action was scarcely neutral. By the time that the “Committee” released its “report” on Monday recommending cuts, the film’s release date was four days away. The producers had a simple choice: contest this, risk a potentially costly delay and a potential defeat at the end of it – or accept the cuts, and ensure that the film was released on time. In view of everything that the Bombay High Court had done until then, and the Supreme Court’s clear disinterest in protecting the free speech rights of the filmmakers and producers, they took the sensible course of action: accepted the cuts, and moved on.

The Supreme Court’s refusal to hear and decide the question of jurisdiction on Friday, therefore, was a case of what I’ve described as judicial evasion. When faced with a crucial constitutional issue, and one that requires a decisive decision one way or another, the Court’s response is to refuse to decide, and to keep the case hanging. In doing so, the Court effectively decides – in favour of the status quo, which more often than not amounts to contracting rights – but also exempts itself from the necessity and responsibility of giving reasons for what would be perceived as a regressive and anti-rights decision. This is precisely what happened in the Jolly LLB 2 case.

Misapplication of Law

Lastly, not only was the Bombay High Court’s decision to set up a “committee” entirely illegal and without jurisdiction, its two orders – on January 30 and February 6 – are patently erroneous. Its initial prima facie finding of “contempt” on the basis of online trailers goes against a range of Supreme Court judgments that make it clear that films have to be seen as a whole (in fact, this was the exact reason that the Delhi High Court dismissed the PIL against Jolly LLB 1). And secondly, the findings of the “Committee” that four scenes did amount to contempt is erroneous on two counts. First, no deference is shown to the findings of the Censor Board. The “Committee” – whose existence has no legal basis –  acts as if it is an entirely fresh censor board, and thus reduces the statutory Board itself to a nullity.

Secondly, it has now been made abundantly clear – both in case law and by a 2006 amendment to the Contempt of Courts Act – that contempt of court is not about protecting the “reputation” of the judiciary, but about ensuring that the course of justice is not interfered with. There is no analysis to show how scenes from a satirical film about the legal profession would have interfered with the course of justice. Is it the (implied) case of the “Committee” and the Court that the “reputation” of the judiciary rests on such fragile foundations that a comic film can end up interfering with the course of justice?

Conclusion

Let us recap what happened to Jolly LLB 2. A film that had been cleared by the Certification Board was nonetheless held by a High-Court appointed “committee”, which was constituted by pure judicial fiat, to be in “contempt of Court”, and required to delete four scenes. This order rested upon no other foundation than the Court telling the film producers, “I am doing this because I can.” The Supreme Court refused to intervene. In other words, through judicial evasion, the Supreme Court enabled the Bombay High Court’s judicial censorship.

And now consider the consequences: this entire incident will give a fillip to persons with “hurt feelings” to file petitions and PILs against films that have been granted certificates by the Censor Board. As long as a petitioner is lucky enough to find judges such as those of the Bombay High Court who agree with him, the film will have to go through a fresh round of reviewing and censoring. And the Supreme Court will not interfere. True, in this case, the “question of law” was left open – but one wonders when it will come to be decided, and in what fashion.

I have written before that over the last few years, it is neither the legislature nor the executive that is the greatest threat to the freedom of speech, but the judiciary. Whether it is Article 21 or Article 142 or PILs, the judiciary is not only failing to act as a shield to protect free speech against State encroachment, but is acting like a sword to cut down free speech. To the framers of our Constitution, who saw an independent judiciary as the only bulwark between civil rights and State power, this would be a matter of great dismay.

And lastly, consider the optics of this whole situation. A film was made that satirises the legal profession. A lawyer filed a petition against it. Two judges decided that this film – which satirised the legal profession – was prima facie in contempt of court. They constituted a “committee” – a majority of whose members were also lawyers – to watch the film and decide whether their own profession was being permissible satirised (in Law School, one of the first principles we were taught is thou shalt not be a judge in thine cause – except, it seems, when you literally can). Two Supreme Court judges were asked to intervene. They refused. The “committee” – with its lawyers – found that the film “defamed” the judiciary, and ordered cuts. These cuts were implemented by two other judges. To a film that satirised the legal profession.

Whichever way you want to slice this, it does not look good.

(Disclaimer: this writer was involved in the Supreme Court hearing on February 3, on behalf of the film producers. The account of the Supreme Court proceedings on that day is based on first-hand experience).

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‘O Brave New World’: The Supreme Court’s Evolving Doctrine of Constitutional Evasion

The Government initiates a program on a national scale, which has far-reaching effects upon the lives of citizens. It stakes its credibility and prestige upon the program, and defends its transformative potential for the country. Critics disagree. Among other things, they argue that the program is illegal without the sanction of law, and also infringes constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. The critics move the Court, and request an early hearing, since the government’s program is changing facts on the ground on a daily basis. The Court hears the case. Perhaps it agrees with the critics, and invalidates the program. The government then has to go back to the drawing board, iron out the illegalities, and come back with another program (if it considers it to be worth the effort). Or, the Court agrees with the government, and holds the program to be legally and constitutionally valid, and the government carries on. In both situations, the Court pronounces upon the scope and limitations of the fundamental rights at issue.

That is an example of a well-working system of checks and balances. However, over the last few months, there are indications that this system is not working in quite the manner that it should. This is a cause for significant concern.

The Aadhaar Hearing

The first substantive hearing in the constitutional challenge to the government’s Aadhaar Program took place on 23rd September, 2013 (all orders in Writ Petition 494/2012 can be accessed here). On that day, a two-judge bench of the Supreme Court admitted the petition for hearing, and passed the following order:

… no person should suffer for not getting the Adhaar card inspite of the fact that some authority had issued a circular making it mandatory.

On 8th October, 2013, the case was listed for “final hearing” on 22nd October, 2013. On 26th November, 2013, the Court passed directions for impleadment of all states and union territories. The case then proceeded to a three-judge bench. Through the course of January to April 2014, the three-judge bench heard arguments by Mr Shyam Divan, senior counsel for the Petitioner, on a number of dates. At the end of April, the case was listed for July, but only came up for hearing next more than a year later, on 21st July, 2015. Through the last week of July and the first week of August, the three-judge bench heard arguments from both Mr Divan and Mr Gopal Subramaniam .

At this point, the Attorney-General argued that there was no fundamental right to privacy under the Indian Constitution, and cases that had consistently held to the contrary since Gobind vs State of MP in 1975 were wrongly decided, since they had ignored binding eight and six-judge bench decisions. He asked for a reference to a larger bench. The Court agreed. On 11th August, 2015, it passed a detailed reference order.  In the order, it noted that:

“We are of the opinion that the cases on hand raise far reaching questions of importance involving interpretation of the Constitution. What is at stake is the amplitude of the fundamental rights including that precious and inalienable right under Article 21. If the observations made in M.P. Sharma (supra) and Kharak Singh (supra) are to be read literally and accepted as the law of this country, the fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India and more particularly right to liberty under Article 21 would be denuded of vigour and vitality.”

The Court also stated:

“Having regard to importance of the matter, it is desirable that the matter be heard at the earliest.”

Until the time that the case could be heard by a larger bench, the Court also issued the following directions:

“The production of an Aadhaar card will not be condition for obtaining any benefits otherwise due to a citizen… [and] the Unique Identification Number or the Aadhaar card will not be used by the respondents for any purpose other than the PDS Scheme and in particular for the purpose of distribution of foodgrains, etc. and cooking fuel, such as kerosene. The Aadhaar card may also be used for the purpose of the LPG Distribution Scheme.” 

There was one more substantive hearing, on 15th October, 2015. A five-judge bench of the Court added some more schemes to the ones listed out in the 11th August order, for which the Aadhaar Card could be used. The Court reiterated that:

We will also make it clear that the Aadhaar card Scheme is purely voluntary and it cannot be made mandatory till the matter is finally decided by this Court one way or the other.”

And:

“Since there is some urgency in the matter, we request the learned Chief Justice of India to constitute a Bench for final hearing of these matters at the earliest.”

A five-judge bench is constituted by the Chief Justice at his discretion. After the hearing of 15th October (fifteen months ago), the case has not been heard. In the meantime, the government’s conduct is well-known. The Aadhaar Act was passed, to give statutory sanction to the program (questions have been raised about the constitutionality of the Act as well, especially regarding excessive delegation and the fundamental right to privacy). Despite numerous Supreme Court directions that Aadhaar could not be made mandatory, there have been reports on an almost weekly basis that an Aadhaar Card is effectively a requirement for some or the other benefit (the most recent one being today, for the MGNREGA). Contempt petitions have been filed before the Court, which remain pending.

In light of the Government’s conduct over the last year and a half, the Court’s refusal to hear the case goes beyond ordinary situations of matters being stuck in the courts for long periods because of judicial backlog and pendency. Aadhaar is a classic case where the more the Court delays, the greater the Government’s ability to eventually present it with a fait accompli – the fait accompli being that Aadhaar coverage becomes so deep, pervasive and intertwined with citizens’ lives, that even if the Court was to hold it unconstitutional, it would be, virtually, a technical or physical impossibility to undo it – or, if not an impossibility, the cost of disruption would be so prohibitively high, that no Government could reasonably implement it, even if it wanted to.

For these reasons, when the new Chief Justice assumed office this week, the case was mentioned before him for an urgent hearing. The request was declined (with observations that are deeply concerning, if they reflect the Court’s institutional position on fundamental rights). Presumably, it will not be heard any time soon – despite two judicial observations from the middle of 2015 highlighting the urgency of the case, and the need for a quick hearing.

Demonetisation

On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister announced that Rs. 500 and 1000 notes would cease to be legal tender from midnight. In the coming weeks, this announcement was followed by a slew of notifications from the Reserve Bank that placed various restrictions on what citizens could or could not do with their money – how much they could withdraw from ATMs, how much they could withdraw from banks etc. At the time, the Prime Minister made the prediction – which now appears to be a little optimistic – that normalcy would return within fifty days – that is, by the end of the year.

As Namita Wahi argues, there are substantive legal arguments for the proposition that the demonetisation policy violated both law and the Constitution. On the first, arguably, the policy was ultra vires the RBI Act, and consequently, required the sanction of either a law, or an Ordinance (there is an Ordinance now). And secondly, that the Policy violated the right to property (Article 300A), as well as the fundamental rights to trade and life.

These arguments were raised by various petitioners challenging various aspects of the policy, who moved the Court soon after November 8. A number of abortive hearings took place over the course of the last week of November, and the first half of December. Finally, the Court referred the case to a five-judge bench, and formulated a number of questions about the legality and constitutionality of demonetisation.

It is now almost two months after the initial announcement. The Prime Minister’s self-imposed time limit of 31 December has expired. Many deaths have been reported. Much of the cash that was supposed to have been taken out of circulation is – reportedly – back in banks; whether or not it is true, surely, if not now, then soon enough, demonetisation will begin to wind itself down. In the meantime, there is no sign of the Constitution Bench.

Judgment by Evasion

Rarely – if ever – are contesting parties before a Court on equal terms. Before the Supreme Court, one party will always have the judgment of the lower Court in its favour, and consequently (absent a stay) will benefit from the case getting held up in the Court. In that sense, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are simply incidents of a broader problem of delay and backlog, where failure to hear and decide cases expeditiously does not cause equal harm to both sides, but benefits one at the cost of the other.

However, there is something more here. First of all, Aadhaar and Demonetisation are not ordinary cases – they are classically about the exercise of immense coercive State power against citizens. Adjudicating the legal validity of such State action is at the heart of why we have an independent judiciary. It is the reason why there is a system of checks and balances: because when power on such a scale is unrestrained by the rule of law and by constitutional norms, history has told us more than enough times what follows.

Secondly, as discussed above, this is not a case involving disputed property where, ten years later, the Court can decide the case and order the person in possession of the property to hand it over the victorious litigant. Aadhaar and Demonetisation are cases where, if the Court does not decide the issue within a certain period of time, any future decision will be an exercise in futility. It makes no sense to decide Demonetisation next year, after the policy has run its course – whatever rights were violated (if, that is, rights are being violated) cannot then be redressed. Similarly, it makes no sense to decide the constitutionality of Aadhaar after the program has begun to be used to avail virtually all (public, and some private) social services, and can no longer feasibly be disentangled from the daily lives of citizens.

Consequently, by refusing to decide, the Supreme Court effectively does decide – in favour of the Government. In effect, it upholds the validity of Aadhaar without hearing arguments on the constitutional questions, and without passing a reasoned judgment on Aadhaar and the right to privacy. In effect, it upholds the Government’s Demonetisation policy without deciding whether it is open to the State to place onerous restrictions on what citizens are allowed to do with their own money. In effect, it takes the side of State power, against citizen.

It is open to the Supreme Court to do so. But if that is what it is doing, then it ought to have the moral courage to defend its position in a reasoned judgment. It ought to explain – publicly – to citizens the scope of their fundamental right to privacy, and the manner in which Aadhaar is consistent with it. Once the Supreme Court decides, then its judgment can be engaged with, defended, criticised, its reasoning scrutinised closely, its positions critiqued. That is how it ought to be. But by simply refusing to hear and decide the case, where the consequences of non-decision are both terribly high and absolutely decisive, the Court only ends up abdicating its role as the organ of the State that is meant to stand between citizen and government power, and to keep the latter within its constitutionally-defined spheres.

The fact that this is how two of the most important constitutional issues in recent times have fared in the Supreme Court suggests that scholars of the Court can no longer make do simply with studying what the Court has held, and the jurisprudence that it has created through its judgments. Scholars must now also study this evolving jurisprudence of Constitutional evasion, which is defined by refusal, and by silence.

 

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