The Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court has held that access to Justice is a Fundamental Right guaranteed to citizens by Article 14 and Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
The five Judge Bench comprising of Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur, Justices Fakkir Mohamed Ibrahim Kalifulla, A.K. Sikri, S.A. Bobde, and R. Banumathi has made the above observation while answering a reference to it, which arose from Transfer Petitions, eleven seeking transfer of civil cases from or to the State of Jammu and Kashmir while the remaining two seek transfer of criminal cases from the State to Courts outside that State.
The Bench further observed that if “life” implies not only life in the physical sense but a bundle of rights that makes life worth living, there is no juristic or other basis for holding that denial of “access to justice” will not affect the quality of human life so as to take access to justice out of the purview of right to life guaranteed under Article 21.
“We have; therefore, no hesitation in holding that access to justice is indeed a facet of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. The Citizen’s inability to access courts or any other adjudicatory mechanism provided for determination of rights and obligations is bound to result in denial of the guarantee contained in Article 14 both in relation to equality before law as well as equal protection of laws. Absence of any adjudicatory mechanism or the inadequacy of such mechanism, needless to say, is bound to prevent those looking for enforcement of their right to equality before laws and equal protection of the laws from seeking redress and thereby negate the guarantee of equality before laws or equal protection of laws and reduce it to a mere teasing illusion. Article 21 of the Constitution apart, access to justice can be said to be part of the guarantee contained in Article 14 as well.”, the Bench added.
ESSENCE OF ACCESS TO JUSTICE
According to the Bench the following are the four main facets that constitute the essence of access to justice
(i) The need for adjudicatory mechanism: One of the most fundamental requirements for providing to the citizens access to justice is to set-up an adjudicatory mechanism whether described as a Court, Tribunal, Commission or Authority or called by any other name whatsoever, where a citizen can agitate his grievance and seek adjudication of what he may perceive as a breach of his right by another citizen or by the State or any one of its instrumentalities. In order that the right of a citizen to access justice is protected, the mechanism so provided must not only be effective but must also be just, fair and objective in its approach. So also the procedure which the court, Tribunal or Authority may adopt for adjudication, must, in itself be just and fair and in keeping with the well recognized principles of natural justice.
(ii) The mechanism must be conveniently accessible in terms of distance: The forum/mechanism so provided must, having regard to the hierarchy of courts/tribunals, be reasonably accessible in terms of distance for access to justice since so much depends upon the ability of the litigant to place his/her grievance effectively before the court/tribunal/court/competent authority to grant such a relief.
(iii) The process of adjudication must be speedy. “Access to justice” as a constitutional value will be a mere illusion if justice is not speedy. Justice delayed, it is famously said, is justice denied. If the process of administration of justice is so time consuming, laborious, indolent and frustrating for those who seek justice that it dissuades or deters them from even considering resort to that process as an option, it would tantamount to denial of not only access to justice but justice itself. In Sheela Barse’s case (supra) this Court declared speedy trial as a facet of right to life, for if the trial of a citizen goes on endlessly his right to life itself is violated. There is jurisprudentially no qualitative difference between denial of speedy trial in a criminal case, on the one hand, and civil suit, appeal or other proceedings, on the other, for ought we know that civil disputes can at times have an equally, if not, more severe impact on a citizen’s life or the quality of it. Access to Justice would, therefore, be a constitutional value of any significance and utility only if the delivery of justice to the citizen is speedy, for otherwise, the right to access to justice is no more than a hollow slogan of no use or inspiration for the citizen. It is heartening to note that over the past six decades or so the number of courts established in the country has increased manifold in comparison to the number that existed on the day the country earned its freedom. There is today almost invariably a court of Civil Judge junior or senior division in every taluka and a District and Sessions Judge in every district. In terms of accessibility from the point of view of distance which a citizen ought to travel, we have come a long way since the time the British left the country. However, the increase in literacy, awareness, prosperity and proliferation of laws has made the process of adjudication slow and time consuming primarily on account of the over worked and under staffed judicial system, which is crying for creation of additional courts with requisite human resources and infrastructure to effectively deal with an ever increasing number of cases being filed in the courts and mounting backlog of over thirty million cases in the subordinate courts. While the States have done their bit in terms of providing the basic adjudicatory mechanisms for disposal of resolution of civil or criminal conflicts, access to justice remains a big question mark on account of delays in the completion of the process of adjudication on account of poor judge population and judge case ratio in comparison to other countries.
(iv) The process of adjudication must be affordable to the disputants: Access to justice will again be no more than an illusion if the adjudicatory mechanism provided is so expensive as to deter a disputant from taking resort to the same. Article 39-A of the Constitution promotes a laudable objective of providing legal aid to needy litigants and obliges the State to make access to justice affordable for the less fortunate sections of the society.
Read the Judgment here.