In a significant judgment, the Bombay High Court today rejected the suggestion by the state government to allot land in Goregaon, a suburban area in Mumbai, for a new high court complex. Goregaon is far away from Fort which is where the current building is located in the South Mumbai area.
A division bench of Justice AS Oka and Justice MS Sonak pronounced the judgment reserved on October 31, 2018. The court directed the state to consider allotting a larger piece of land in the Bandra Kurla Complex area and reconsider its decision not to allot area for advocate's chambers.
The PIL seeking a new high court complex was filed by Advocate Ahmad Abdi, president of Bombay Lawyers Association in 2012, and has mostly been heard by a bench headed by Justice Oka.
Old HC Building
At the very outset, the court noted: "Under a Charter issued by Her Majesty, Queen Victoria on 26th June 1862, the High Court of Judicature at Bombay was established on 14th August 1862. The Letters Patent had authorised appointment of 15 Judges, but the Court worked only with 7 Judges for sixty years. Thus, it is a 156 years old institution. On 17th April 1871, construction of the present building of this Court at Mumbai commenced which was completed in November 1878 and functioning of this Court in the present building commenced on 10th January 1879. The material placed on record will show that the building as originally constructed was meant for six to seven Courts which were located on the second floor. Now, the sanctioned strength of the Judges of the Bombay High Court is 94. When all the posts are filled in, about 50 Judges will have to function at the principal seat at Mumbai."
In an order dated October 10, 2014, the court had noted that a suggestion was made by the high court to allot land in Bandra Kurla Complex. Thus, the state was directed to reconsider allotment of such land at Bandra Kurla Complex as it is well connected through road and local transport.
In September, all stakeholders like the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa, Bombay Bar Association (BBA) and the Advocates' Association of Western India (AAWI) had mutually agreed on a consensus that the state government must allot a centrally located land having adequate area in the city of Mumbai for the construction of a new high court complex.
However, in a meeting with the state government, it was suggested that only 6.02-hectare land was available at Government Colony, Bandra, for the new building which was nothing compared to the 50-acre land availability claimed by the state in earlier affidavits. Then a suggestion was made to allocate the said piece of land near the Pahadi Goregaon area in the suburbs of Mumbai.
President of BBA, Senior Counsel Milind Sathe submitted that the High Court Law Library is 156 years old, it has a membership of 5,000 and there are 300 to 400 new members enrolled every year. He pointed out that the library has more than 7 lakh periodicals, journals etc., and the area of the library is only 6,000 sq.ft. He also informed the bench that out of 5,000 members, only 500 to 600 members can use the library at a time. The library has become overcrowded and it requires an area of about 20,000 sq.ft.
Senior Counsel VA Thorat appeared on behalf of AAWI. He submitted that the lack of funds is not a viable ground. "This Court has rendered service to the citizens for last 156 years and, therefore, the State Government should have no hesitation in granting a large plot of land for new High Court complex which is centrally located so that litigants from mofussil can easily approach the Court," Thorat said.
He further told the court: "Allotment of land at a faraway place at Pahadi Goregaon cannot be made for the new High Court complex as the litigants from Districts will find it difficult to reach the Court."
Appearing for the Law Society, Senior Counsel Darius Khambatta concurred with submissions by other associations. It was commonly suggested by all stakeholders to refer to the state-of-the-art facilities constructed at the Lucknow bench of Allahabad High Court and also the Saket District Court Complex. However, ASG Anil Singh said there was a scarcity of land in Mumbai and hence if a land is being proposed to be allotted near Pahadi, Goregaon, then the same should be accepted by the high court administration.
The court noted the important role played by the high court in the administration of justice, but also observed that irrespective of this, the heritage status of the present building will have to be preserved.
"It is in the context of historic importance of this Court and the important role played by this Court in the administration of justice that the submissions made will have to be appreciated. We may note here that this petition has nothing to do with the heritage status of the present building of this Court. Even if the High Court is shifted from the existing building, there cannot be a doubt that considering the heritage status of this historic building, the same will have to be properly preserved and maintained under any circumstances," it said.
The court further noted that in an affidavit filed on behalf of the state, it was stated that gross area covered by the Government Colony at Bandra is 37.75 hectares and the area available for redevelopment is 30.70 hectares. Out of the same, an area of 11.68 hectares will be available for sale.
The bench observed: "It is alleged that the cost of construction of High Court complex will come from the consideration received by sale of the area of 11.68 Hectare. In our view, this approach is fundamentally wrong. Construction of High Court complex is not a commercial venture. If additional land of 11.68 Hectare is available, it must come to the Court. The State Government cannot deny more area to the Court Complex, though available, only on commercial considerations."
Considering the crucial question of 'accessibility' of the common man to the new court complex as pointed out by all the stakeholders in the case, the court stated that land in Pahadi Goregaon would not be a viable option.
The state has been directed to decide within six months whether an additional area of 11.68 hectare (earmarked for sale) in addition to the earmarked area of 6.02 hectare at Bandra (East) could be offered. Also, the state has been asked to reconsider allocating land for advocate's chambers within the next three months. The matter will now be listed for directions on August 2.
Read the Judgment Here