Critical Judgment

How vague prose can muddle the rulings of our highest courts.

01 April 2015
Justice P Sathasivam’s 2014 ruling commuting a number of death-row sentences was salutary, but unclear in parts.
Chandradep Kumar / India Today Group / Gety Images
Justice P Sathasivam’s 2014 ruling commuting a number of death-row sentences was salutary, but unclear in parts.
Chandradep Kumar / India Today Group / Gety Images

IN SEPTEMBER LAST YEAR, a five-judge constitutional bench of the Supreme Court of India rendered a momentous verdict in a case that dealt with important aspects of the judiciary’s independence. The petitioner, the Madras Bar Association, challenged the central government over the National Tax Tribunal Act, 2005, under which a purportedly independent body had been established to rule on substantial questions of tax law. The petitioner argued that such tribunals, a relatively modern phenomenon, impinged on the constitutionally sanctioned authority of the country’s high courts, and they were not competent to decide on matters of law. More damagingly, the petitioner asserted that such tribunals would be under the control of the executive branch of the government.

Given the weighty legal issues at stake, the ruling would have proved noteworthy whichever side it came down on. As it happened, the judgment declared the statute—and, as a consequence, the tribunal it established—unconstitutional. But while this much is evident from reading the conclusion to the majority opinion, written by Justice JS Khehar on behalf of four of the five judges, the details of how the court arrived at its decision are less clear.

Block quotations from past decisions and statutes clutter the 227-page document. These include, to point out only one of many examples, an excerpt from a decision rendered by an English judge, Lord Diplock, in a 1975 appeals case in the United Kingdom, which alone runs for nine pages. As a result of these extensive citations, the court’s own explication of the law is difficult to locate.

Suhrith Parthasarthy practises law at the Madras High Court. 

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