How much does a Supreme Court judgement cost?

“What kind of impact do some judgements have on the finances of the government?”  In this post, I propose to look at this question using a judgement delivered in April 2009.  In the course of this post, I also argue that judges should refrain from delivering judgements which have huge financial and policy implications, as they sometimes have the effect of re-shaping government policies, and do not always result in public good.

The case I am using is: Avinash Mehrotra v. Union of India (Supreme Court – W.P No. 483 of 2004, judgement by Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Lokeshwar Panta, accessible here).

The relevant facts: The case was a PIL filed relating to a fire in a private school in a district of Tamil Nadu.  The fire started in the school’s kitchen while the cooks were preparing the mid-day meal.  Usually around 900 students attended the school daily, and a large number perished in the fire.

What the PIL was for: (1) Every child should get free, safe, secure, and good education (!);  (2) Stringent rules and regulations at par with the highest standards should be framed for ensuring safety in schools;  (3) such standards should be enforced effectively;  (4) Manuals for fire-safety procedures should be framed;  (5) kitchens in the school should have adequate safety mechanisms;  (6) schools should not exceed the limit of children it can admit;  (7) Schools must prepare emergency safety plans, assign duties to teachers, staff, and students and teachers, and also local authorities should be trained for responding to emergencies;  (8) a committee of jurists, legal experts and lawyers be constituted to formulate a comprehensive report for carrying out reforms in the safety standards.

The judgement of the court:

First, the Court noted that States admit that many schools do not meet self-determined safety standards, let alone those of the National Building Code.

Second, it noted that thousands of schools lack any fire suppression equipment.

Third, it noted that thousands more schools do not have adequate emergency exits or non-inflammable roofs.

Fourth, it said that the complainant’s brief was viewed by them as a document which crystallised safety standards for schools.

Fifth, it then rambled on for a bit about the importance of education.

Sixth, it said that the right to a safe and secure education is a part of the fundamental right to education.

Lastly, it said that portions of the National Building Code of India, 2005 will have to be complied with, and named the specific parts it wanted complied. These include (DISCLAIMER: Some points which I thought were very reasonable have not been mentioned.  This post already seems never ending!!):

(a) Fire fighting training to all teachers and students from X to XII standards.

(b) Fire Task Force in every school comprising of Head of the institution, two teachers / staff members and one member from the Fire and Rescue Department should be constituted.
(c) Display of emergency telephone numbers and list of persons to be contacted on the notice board, and also Mock drills to be conducted regularly. Fire alarm to be provided in each floor and for rural schools
separate long bell arrangement in case of emergency.
(d) There shall be a School Safety Advisory Committee and an Emergency Response Plan drafted by the Committee in approval and consultation with the concerned Fire & Rescue Department.
(e) All schools to observe Fire Safety Day on 14th of April every year.
(f) Existing school buildings shall be provided with additional doors in the main entrances as well as the class rooms if required.
(g) Kitchen and other activities involving use of fire shall be carried out in a secure and safe location away from the main school building.
(h) An Inspection Team consisting of experts like a Civil Engineer, a Health Officer, a Revenue Officer, a Psychologist, a Fire Officer, a local body officer and a development officer besides the educational authorities shall carry inspection and assessment of infrastructural facilities before the commencement of each academic year.
My issues:
Positives: It noted the lack of planning, training, infrastructure and the consequent danger posed to students in schools in emergency situations.  The court rightly asked state governments to ensure these issues are addressed.
First, the court went on to address the specific question of how these deficiencies are to be addressed.  The court was right in pointing out the government was not discharging its duties adequately.  It was not right in pointing out how it should be doing it.
Second, by telling the government to impart fire-safety related education, it also partially decided school curriculum!! Note, that while the necessity of such education is undoubted, it is the role of the government to decide whether such education should be given, or can be given.
Third, the government has been asked to implement directions it would find difficult to do, even while acting in good faith.  As discussed in an earlier post, there are nearly 7.5 lakh primary schools in the country.  Setting up, (1) Fire Task Forces, (2) inspection teams, (3) separate kitchens, and so on requires a great mobilisation of resources when a large number of schools do not have pukka roofs, buildings, or even toilets.
My criticisms lead me to the point of stating that while the directions of the court are well intentioned, since the government is forced to abide by them, the judgement actually not just re-shapes the priority of the government, but also reduces the flexibility of the government in ensuring that the spirit of the judgement is upheld.

4 thoughts on “How much does a Supreme Court judgement cost?

  1. Dear Mr. Burman,

    Great insight into how courts and judgements effect government. But what you fail to see and note is that if a common citizen of India wants to bring about a socil change, he has no other option except seeking the refuge of courts. And in case, learned that they become after your article, the courts refuse to spear-head social change, who will do it??

    Do you have any suggestions ??


    1. Hi,
      Since my original comment was a little off the ball, this is the revised one: Agreed that the courts do remain the last source of justice when the administrative machinery system of the the state fails.

      However, the courts have a responsibility to function within their designated role. In this case therefore, they should have held those negligent culpable for the incident. Those responsible could have included officials from any level of the government, from policy-framing to implementation, who failed in complying with basic safety standards. The courts also failed to award well-deserved damages as compensation. Awarding punitive damages is something that courts do in a number of countries to deter repitition of similar incidents happening again. In this case, neither of the more commonly followed judicial approaches was adopted by the court.

      I would conclude by saying that there exist different methods of delivering justice in any given situation, and courts in India are increasingly adopting a more-proactive, but less defensible approach.


  2. What you hve not noticed is that fact tat dispite the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India repeatedly requiring answers, most state governments have continued their apathy to the problem.

    The threat of personal appearance and “Punitive Action” against Chief Secretaries and goveernments have also not helped in thrusting compliance. The fact that a lot of interested businesses have a lot of money at stake in the mid-day meal and such other schemes, ensures that the schemes continue in substantially the same fashion as they are presently being run. Any better and chances of making dirty money reduce.

    My contest has always been with the system which intends to deliver a very little benefit at a very large cost (health and even life). The Governments have repeatedly failed to listen, even after the Hon’ble Supreme Court having tried its best.

    Suggest some alternatives and we will definitely be working on it. The Nation needs the intellectual (and also the literary) to come forward with solutions.

    In another direction, I would appreciate of the slander against the court in the Heading is dilute by a better wording please.


    1. I appreciate your point of view, but I think you have not understood the point I was trying to make.

      As for your other request, I do not see how the title of my post constitutes slander, or defames the exalted reputation of the Supreme Court.

      slan·der (slndr)
      1. Law Oral communication of false statements injurious to a person’s reputation.
      2. A false and malicious statement or report about someone.
      v. slan·dered, slan·der·ing, slan·ders


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