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Justice UU Lalit recuses self in Ayodhya case

Justice UU Lalit will now be replaced on the five-judge bench that will meet on January 29.

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Justice UU Lalit recuses self in Ayodhya case
Justice UU Lalit (www.sci.gov.in)
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The five-judge Constitution bench, hearing the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit dispute, suffered its first casualty on the maiden day of its hearing.

One of the judges bowed out after an SC order of 1997 showed that he had appeared in a case related to the Ayodhya suit. Justice UU Lalit will now be replaced on the five-judge bench that will meet on January 29.

On the next date, the SC will fix a time-schedule to hear the case. The Registry of the court will inspect the documents and report whether the case is ripe to be heard.

The exercise will be a mammoth task considering the fact that over 20,000 pages of documents in several languages need to be translated into English. Then give it to the relevant parties to kickstart the hearing on the 14 cross appeals against the decision passed by Allahabad High Court on September 30, 2010.

Even as the hearing of the case was on, bus loads of people arrived outside the SC chanting slogans in favour of Ram Mandir.

In CJI's courtroom, seconds after CJI and the other four judges – Justices SA Bobde, NV Ramana, UU Lalit, and DY Chandrachud took their seats, senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan appearing for a Muslim party flagged two preliminary objections. One related to Justice UU Lalit's continuation on the bench and the other on the decision taken by CJI on the administrative side to constitute a Constitution Bench in the case.

Dhavan shared an order passed by the SC on November 20, 1997 in a contempt petition titled Mohd Aslam Bhure v Kalyan Singh & Others where Justice Lalit (then a practicing lawyer in SC) had appeared for one of the contemners which included Kalyan Singh, the then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh.

Dhavan had no objection to Justice Lalit continuing on the bench but felt it to be his duty to inform the Court.

CJI consulted Justice Lalit on the bench who conveyed his disinclination to continue further. Justice Lalit admitted that he had appeared for one of the contemners in the contempt petition. Since the decision of recusal is that of the judge alone, CJI was left with no option but to accept the decision taken by Justice Lalit. Dhavan later apologised but the Court remarked, "Don't be sorry, It's simple assertion of facts."

But the other objection on formation of a Constitution Bench was dismissed by CJI. Since a judicial order of September 27, 2018 had refused to constitute a Constitution Bench in the matter, Dhavan urged CJI to consider passing a judicial order forming a five-judge bench instead of issuing an administrative order.

Justice Gogoi cited Order VI, Rule 1 of the Supreme Court Rules which gives power to CJI to constitute a bench of "minimum" two judges to hear matters in SC. This rule did not specify a maximum limit. "The requirement is minimum numerical date of two and it's always for CJI to decide the strength of the bench having regard to various facts and circumstances which cannot be delineated or set out. This is why a five-judge bench was constituted which in no way contradicts the order of the three-judge bench (on September 27)," CJI said.

He also referred to a note prepared by the SC Secretary General which showed the unprecedented nature of a case so bulky in documents and so exhaustive involving 120 issues to be determined that needed a five-judge bench. Senior advocate Harish Salve appearing for the Hindu parties supported the CJI saying, "A constitutional question must be decided by a bench of five judges."

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