Supreme Court clamps down on ‘bench hunting’

The Supreme Court has strongly decried the increasing corrupt practice, mostly in lower courts of litigants assisted by their lawyers indulging in “bench hunting” or “forum shopping” that is managing to get their cases heard by a particular judge and ensuring a favourable order.
The apex court said it was seen that the trend “which will eventually shake people’s confidence in the Indian justice system” was mostly adopted before filing bail applications or other urgent petitions to secure quick relief. The subject had made national headlines in March 24 this year when senior lawyer Dushyant Dave, now the Supreme Court Bar Association President, trooped into the courtroom of the then Chief Justice R.M. Lodha and said “bench hunting” was rampant in the apex court too, forcing the CJI to initiate a probe.

Laying down firm guidelines (see box) to deal with the menace, the apex court said if a petition filed by a person comes before a particular judge entrusted with the task of hearing bails and he/she dismisses it, all subsequent bail pleas by same petitioner should also come before the same judge unless his roster has been changed, is on long leave, has been transferred or has retired. The petition can at no cost be heard by a second judge when the original judge is available, said the bench.

A bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra said: “Unless such principle in consonance with judicial decorum, discipline and propriety is adhered to, there is enormous possibility of “forum shopping” which has no sanction in law and definitely, has no sanctity. If the same is allowed to prevail, it is likely to usher in anarchy, whim and caprice and in the ultimate eventuate shake the faith in the adjudicating system.”

The court was hearing a petition filed by two accused in a cheating case involving ` 1.5 crore challenging a Delhi High Court order cancelling their anticipatory bail granted by a sessions judge on the ground that they had indulged in “bench hunting” in the Saket District Court.

The court said: “We find that the high court was disturbed that their second application, after the first one was rejected by the judge competent to hear it, was allowed by another judge who was not authorised to hear it.”

The apex court said when the first judge declined to grant the bail application, the second judge should have asked the petitioner to approach the same judge rather than deciding on it. Justice Misra also slammed the prosecution saying it was its duty to bring it to the notice of the second judge that such an application was rejected earlier by a different judge and he was available.

The SC said: “If successive bail applications on the same subject are permitted to be disposed of by different judges, there would be conflicting orders and a litigant would be pestering every judge till he gets an order to his liking, resulting in the credibility of the court and there would be wastage of courts’ time. Judicial discipline requires that such matters must be placed before the same judge, if he is available.”