Justice Vineet Saran’s legacy: Facts, figures, and impressions

Justice Vineet Saran has authored only 28 judgments during his tenure in the Supreme Court while he has been part of the benches in 298 judgments. Justice Saran was part of many five-judge Constitution Benches but wrote only one Constitution Bench Judgment concerning the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. 

JUSTICE Vineet Saran retired on Tuesday from the Supreme Court with a shorter tenure than most other sitting judges of the court.  The average length of current Supreme Court judges’ tenure is 5.3 years. With a tenure lasting less than four years,  Justice Saran’s record in the Supreme Court, therefore, is not very impressive in terms of data on the number of judgments authored by individual judges. But he has managed to endear himself to the lawyers who practised before him, in terms of his innate ability to lighten the atmosphere in the courtroom.

Speaking to The Leaflet, Supreme Court advocate Shobha Gupta said Justice Saran has been an ideal judge. She added that it was sad to lose such a good judge who has been most well behaved, intelligent, humble and having a human heart. Gupta also said Justice Saran fully knew his job and responsibilities. Justice Saran, Gupta said, was always open to hearing and understanding the lawyer’s point of view.

Most importantly, in matters very much live on social media platforms,  he came out very well informed,  alive to the current situations but still free from perceptions,  biases and preconceived notions“, Gupta added.

Advocate Sunil Fernandes said Justice Vineet Saran’s tenure in the Supreme Court will be remembered for his beatific smile, earthy sense of humour and for his innate sense of justice.

“Polite to a fault, he would always encourage younger members of the bar to grab opportunities to argue before the Apex Court.  He had a rare ability to lighten the court’s atmosphere even in the most hotly debated cases”, Fernandes said of Justice Saran.

Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Vikas Singh said no junior felt that they did not get a proper audience before Justice Saran. Singh was formally expressing the Bar’s gratitude to Justice Saran on Tuesday when he was sitting on the ceremonial bench presided by the Chief Justice of India, on his last working day.

Justice Saran had served as the Chief Justice of Orissa High Court when he was appointed to the bench of the Supreme Court on August 7, 2018, along with Justices Indira Banerjee and K.M. Joseph.

The recommendation to elevate Justice Saran was made by the then Collegium comprising Chief Justice of India[CJI] Dipak Misra, Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur, Kurian Joseph and A.K. Sikri. Justice Saran also served as the Karnataka High Court judge before his appointment as chief justice of the Orissa High Court in 2016.

Justice Saran was initially appointed as a judge of the Allahabad High Court in 2002 and thus, he has retired after completing a total of 20 years as a judge. A graduate of the Allahabad University, Saran got himself admitted on the rolls of the Uttar Pradesh Bar Council in 1980. In 1995, he served as Additional Advocate General for Uttar Pradesh.

In his short tenure at the Supreme Court, Justice Saran has been part of some crucial cases including those which were decided by a Constitution Bench. Days before his retirement, a bench comprising Justice Saran and Justice J.K. Maheshwari while quashing a money laundering proceedings under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act [PMLA], 2002 held that courts under PMLA could not proceed on the basis of preponderance of probabilities and that the allegations must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt in the court.

Noticeable interventions

In May last year, a vacation bench comprising Justices Saran and B.R. Gavai refused to grant any relief to the Central Bureau of Investigation[CBI] which was challenging the order of the Calcutta High Court placing four All India Trinamool Congress (TMC) leaders Madan Mitra, Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee and Sovan Chatterjee, accused in the Narada sting case, under house arrest with liberty to continue official work as an interim measure.

In Covid-19 related matter, a vacation bench comprising Justices Vineet Saran and B.R. Gavai last year stayed as many as three high court orders relating to the Covid19 management. Of the three, two decisions were delivered by the Allahabad High Court and the third by the Rajasthan High Court.

On May 21 last year, it stayed on an appeal by the Uttar Pradesh Government, the Allahabad High Court’s order observing that the medical system in Uttar Pradesh’s smaller cities and villages appeared to be at the mercy of God or ‘Ram Bharose’. The high court’s “Ram Bharose” comment was made after it found that a dead body of a Covid19 patient who was admitted to the Medical College in Meerut was marked as unidentified, packed in a bag and disposed of.

When this matter came up for hearing post vacation, the bench which also comprised Justice Dinesh Maheshwari orally remarked that it would examine how far constitutional courts can venture into issues that fall within the Executive domain in relation to COVID-19 management. This was clearly contrary to what a three-judge special bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, L. Nageswara Rao and Ravindra Bhat had been doing in a suo motu case registered by the Supreme Court on the Covid-19 crisis in the county. On August 12 last year, the bench led by Justice Saran had directed to list the Ram Bharsose remark appeal after three weeks. But this matter has never been listed since then.

The same vacation bench on May 26, stayed another order of the Allahabad High Court that held that the apprehension of death on account of the Covid19 pandemic was a ground to grant anticipatory bail to an accused. In another appeal, this time not by the government but by the high court against a decision of one of its own single judge bench, the Supreme Court bench led by Justice Saran on May 25, stayed a high court order restraining the police till July 17 from arresting accused in offences carrying a maximum three years’ imprisonment due to the Covid19 situation.

Justice Saran was part of a two-judge bench headed by Justice U.U. Lalit that quashed the sedition case filed against senior journalist Vinod Dua by the Himachal Pradesh police in connection with his television programme in 2020 criticizing the Central government’s implementation of the Covid-19 lockdown. The bench held that a citizen has the right to criticise or comment upon the measures undertaken by the government and its functionaries, so long as they do not incite people to indulge in violence against it or intend to create public disorder; and it is only when words or expressions have a pernicious tendency or intention of creating public disorder or disturbance of law and order that Sections 124A and 505 of the Indian Penal Code [IPC] must step in.

Justice Saran was part of a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra that overturned the Gujarat High Court judgment acquitting nine persons for the killing of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya in 2003. Pandya was a minister in the then Narendra Modi-led Gujarat government. The high court had accused the CBI of botching up the investigation into the killing. Pandya was shot dead on March 26, 2003, near Law Garden in Ahmedabad during a morning walk. The same bench also rejected a petition filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) in January this year seeking a fresh court-monitored probe in the Pandya murder case.

Justice Saran on Constitution benches

In his a little over three years tenure, Justice Saran had been part of eight five-judge Constitution benches that also comprised Justices Arun Mishra, Indira Banerjee, MR Shah and S. Ravindra Bhat.

In the context of the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances[NDPS] Act, 1985, the bench, of which Justice Saran was part, held “… merely because the informant is the investigator, by that itself the investigation would not suffer the vice of unfairness or bias and therefore on the sole ground that informant is the investigator, the accused is not entitled to acquittal. The matter has to be decided on a case-to-case basis.”( Mukesh v. State (Narcotic Branch of Delhi)

In TN Medical Officers Association v. Union of India, the Constitution Bench held that the Medical Council of India[MCI] had no power to make any reservation for in-service candidates in Post Graduate[PG] Medical Course in States and that only States were allowed to grant the benefit of reservation of seats to in-service doctors in the National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET) postgraduate degree courses.

In yet another case, State of Punjab v. Davinder Singh, the constitution bench of which Justice Saran was part, referred to a larger bench the issue of the classification of the Scheduled Castes (SCs) into “more backward” and “backward”. In Pandurang Ganpati Chaugale v. Vishwasrao Patil Murgud Sahakari Bank Ltd, the bench held that the SARFAESI Act was applicable to the cooperative banks.

In West UP Sugar Mills Association v. State of Uttar Pradesh, the same bench held that once the Central Government having exercised the power under Entries 33 and 34 List III of Seventh Schedule and fixed the “minimum price”, the State Government cannot fix the “minimum price” of sugarcane.

In Chebrolu Leela Prasad Rao v. State of Andhra Pradesh, the bench quashed the Government Order[GO] of the Andhra Pradesh government providing 100% reservation to the Scheduled Tribe candidates out of whom 33.1/3% shall be women for the post of teachers in the schools in the scheduled areas in the State of Andhra Pradesh. It held that there was no rhyme or reason with the State Government to resort to 100% reservation.  But the judgment disappointed many who believed that it moved close to dismantling the entire edifice of the 5th Schedule to the Constitution.

In New India Assurance v. Hilli Multipurpose Cold Storage Pvt. Ltd, the bench held that the District Forum had no power to extend the time for filing the response to the complaint beyond the period of 15 days in addition to 30 days as provided under Section 13 of the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. This was the only case in which as being part of the Constitution Bench, Justice Saran authored the lead judgment.

In the land acquisition matter, that is, Indore Development Authority v. Manohar Lal Sharma, the bench held that the land owners who had refused to accept compensation or who sought reference for higher compensation, cannot claim that the acquisition proceedings had lapsed under Section 24(2) of the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.    This judgment, authored by Justice Arun Mishra, with which Justice Saran had concurred, had led to criticism that it compromised principles of propriety and discipline. Justice Saran had not dissented in any case during his term in the Supreme  Court.

Justice Saran was appointed as Chairman of Ravi-Beas Water Tribunal, even before his retirement, on April 23. Although the appointment has been made under section 5A of the Inter-State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, it cannot be denied that post-retirement sinecures from the executive, when the Judge-to-be-nominated is too close to retirement, may well cast its shadow over the otherwise non-controversial tenure of the Judge.

The Leaflet