The second year of the pandemic did nothing to slow down the Supreme Court. Even as the Delta variant of COVID19 wreaked havoc during the second COVID wave, several courts, including the apex court made attempts to move towards partly physical hearings.
According to the Supreme Court website, around 865 judgments were delivered in 2021. The top court kept busy as it tackled a range of social and constitutional issues even as its judges battled covid.
In April, Justice MM Shantanagouder passed away at a private hospital following a prolonged illness. Had he survived his illness, the 63-year-old judge's tenure would have lasted till 2023.
This year, six judges including Chief Justice of India SA Bobde retired. Acting on the recommendations made by the Supreme Court collegium—comprising of the five senior-most judges— the Centre paved the way for nine appointments to the top court of which at least three will become chief justices of India. Apart from being a record number of elevations done at one go—the highest in one go—the proposals were significant because it was the first in almost 22 months.
This year was also significant because as the Centre and state governments struggled to contain the devastation brought on by the second covid wave, the Supreme Court along with several high courts stepped in and took on the task of monitoring the situation to ensure everyone was given equal access to health facilities.
BOOM recaps the important judgements passed by the Supreme Court this year.
1) Supreme Court paves way for the Central Vista Project
The year started with the top court in a 2:1 majority greenlighting the Centre's flagship plan—the Central Vista Project, which had come under intense criticism for alleged violation of land use and environmental norms. While the majority—Justices AM Khanwilkar and Dinesh Maheshwari—held that "exercise of the power" under the Delhi Development Authority Act was just and proper, Justice Sanjeev Khanna dissented after observing that the change in land use was "bad in law".
2) Homemaker contributes towards the economy of her family and the nation
In a significant ruling that put the spotlight on gender equality, the top court said a homemaker contributes to the family's income and the economy of the nation. While deciding an insurance issue in a motor accident case, the Supreme Court said: "... the conception that housemakers do not 'work' or that they do not add economic value to the household is a problematic idea that has persisted for many years and must be overcome."
The Supreme Court partly allowed an appeal by the heirs seeking enhanced compensation after the death of a deceased couple and observed that there cannot be a fixed approach while determining the notional income for a homemaker and that insurance companies should aim to provide just compensation.
3) UAPA Accused has right to bail if no likelihood of early conclusion of trial
The Supreme Court in February observed that a convict is entitled to his fundamental right to a speedy trial, and bail if this right is violated, even if he is charged under the stringent provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967.
The bench of Chief Justice of India NV Ramana along with Justices Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose held when there is no likelihood of the conclusion of a trial within a reasonable time and an accused has already spent a significant part of the maximum jail sentence that could be imposed at conviction as an undertrial, the rigors of the no-bail rule will melt in such cases.
4) One does not have the right to protest anytime and everywhere
The Supreme Court said one does not have the right to protest anytime and anywhere while dismissing a plea challenging its 2020 Shaheen Bagh judgment which held that protests must be done at designated places only. One has the right to protest and express dissent but with an obligation to certain duties, the court said.
"The right to protest cannot be anytime and everywhere. There may be some spontaneous protests but in case of prolonged dissent or protest, there cannot be continued occupation of public place affecting rights of others," the top court said.
5) Can't rule out larger conspiracy against ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi, but cannot verify
The Supreme Court observed there was a strong possibility of a conspiracy against former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi but after referring to a probe report submitted by the one-man Justice AK Patnaik committee. However, despite the possibility of a conspiracy, the Supreme Court closed the matter since the recovery of evidence was unlikely after two years.
6) Supreme Court verdicts on reservation issues
Through three significant judgments, the Supreme Court struck down reservations meant for the other backward class in local body elections; held that exceeding the 50% ceiling limit for reservations violated fundamental rights; excluded the "creamy layer" from reservation under the OBC quota and reaffirmed that economic criteria cannot be the sole basis of their classification.
7) Supreme Court laid conditions for bail in sexual assault cases
The top court laid down guidelines for the courts to follow while granting bail in sexual assault cases. The Supreme Court's direction came in a plea filed by advocate Aparna Bhat who had challenged the Madhya Pradesh High Court's order directing a man to get a 'Rakhi' tied to him by the victim as a condition for bail in a sexual assault case.
Reversing the high court's judgments and expunging the observations made, the top court also mandated the introduction of gender sensitization as a course module for those studying law.
8) Top court's push for free speech and privacy
The Supreme Court quashed the sedition case against Vinod Dua; granted bail to comedian Munawwar Farooqui and said a journalist has the right to report court proceedings.
In the Vinod Dua case, the court said all journalists are entitled to protection as outlined in the Supreme Court's 1962 Kedar Nath Singh judgment which says that only speech that incites violence or public disorder is seditious. Anything else is exempt.
In Munawar Faruqui's case, the top court granted bail after the senior advocate Saurabh Kirpal—representing Faruqui—argued that "this is a case of victimisation" and the police flouted guidelines for arrest as laid down in the landmark 2014 Arnesh Kumar judgment. "If that is not followed, then it is good enough," Justice Nariman said granting interim bail and proceeded to issue notice when the reply from the counsels was a vehement "not at all".
In a third instance, the top court said that the media could not be banned from reporting oral observations made during the course of court hearings. Sometimes the reportage of dialogue in courts is of "equal public interest", the SC had said.
9) Supreme Court's push for women in the armed forces
The Supreme Court gave women's representation in the armed forces a push through two separate verdicts and unrelated verdicts. In the first instance, the bench led by Justice DY Chandrachud said that the army's evaluation to grant permanent commission to women officers was arbitrary and observed that the structures of society was created by males for males.
Thanks to Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul's judgment, women have been allowed to compete alongside men at the National Defence Academy (NDA), an all-male bastion since its inception in 1955. The bench led by Justice Kaul said women's admission to the NDA could not be postponed and directed the Centre to make arrangements for the November exams saying: "We gave the girls hope with our order, cannot deny them that hope now. The women's admission cannot be postponed."
10) Top court's attempt to weed out criminalisation in politics
The Supreme Court in August ruled that political parties must publish information about the criminal antecedents of any of the candidates they are fielding under a separate caption: "Candidates with Criminal Antecedents" on their official websites.
Political parties must upload such information within 48 hours of them choosing to field candidates who have criminal antecedents. The nation continues to wait and is losing patience, Justice Rohinton Nariman had observed expressing his anguish over non-compliance over the top court's 2020 judgment directing political parties to disclose the criminal history of their candidates.
The same day, a different bench in a different and unrelated matter took a stern view on the increase in the criminalization of politics and ruled that States cannot withdraw criminal cases filed against lawmakers without prior approval from the concerned high courts.
11) Supreme Court issues directions for COVID management
The Supreme Court's series of directions to Centre and the States for effective covid management is perhaps the most significant at a time when the world is grappling the effects of COVID for the second consecutive year. The top court had said that it could not remain "mute spectators" during a national crisis.
While hearing its suo motu matter on issues arising from the second covid wave, the Supreme Court said the Centre's vaccine policy for 18-44 years was "arbitrary and irrational" and set up a 12-member National Task Force (NTF) to streamline the Centre's oxygen allocation program.
In a different plea, the top court said that family members of covid victims were entitled to compensation and directed the states to release Rs. 50,000 as compensation for every covid death.
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