President Pranab Mukherjee on Saturday cautioned judges against the perils of "judicial activism", saying the equilibrium in the exercise of authority must be maintained at all times and self-restraint should be used when confronted with such a situation.
Maintaining that the Constitution is supreme, Mukherjee said "each organ of our democracy must function within its own sphere and must not take over what is assigned to the others".
"Judicial activism should not lead to the dilution of separation of powers, which is a constitutional scheme. The balance of power between the three organs of the state is enshrined in our Constitution," he said, stressing that "the Constitution is supreme".
The President said that the equilibrium in the exercise of authority must be maintained at all times and noted that the exercise of powers by the legislature and executive is subject to judicial review.
"However, the only check possible in the exercise of powers by the judiciary is self-imposed discipline and self- restraint by the judiciary itself," he said while inaugurating the fourth retreat of the judges of the Supreme Court at the National Judicial Academy here.
Mukherjee, however, maintained that the independence and integrity of the judiciary is "of the highest importance, not only to the judges but also to people at large who seek judicial redress against perceived legal injury or executive excess".
"The Constitution invests our independent judiciary, especially the apex court, with extensive jurisdiction over the acts of the legislature and the executive.
"Judicial review is part of the basic structure and cannot be altered even by taking the procedure provided in law. It is the judiciary which ensures the effectiveness of judicial review," he said.
He also lauded the judiciary for "enlarging the scope of justice" in a developing country like India.
"For the enforcement of our developing country, our judiciary has enlarged the scope of justice. For the enforcement of fundamental rights, the Supreme Court, through judicial innovation and activism, has expanded the common law principle of 'locus standi'," he said.
The President further noted that "it has been made possible for courts to permit anyone with sufficient interest and acting bona fide to maintain an action for judicial redress and to activate the judicial process".
"In the support of rights, courts have found a postcard written by a citizen or newspaper article to be material enough to set off judicial action. This has helped to bring justice closer to the common man," he said.
The President said the judiciary, which is one of the three important pillars of our democracy, is the final interpreter of the Constitution and laws. "It helps maintain the social order by swiftly and effectively dealing with those on the wrong side of the law. As an upholder of the rule of law and enforcer of the right to liberty, the role of the judiciary is sacrosanct.
"The faith and confidence of people in the judiciary must always be maintained. For justice to have meaning to the people, it must be accessible, affordable and quick," he said.
Talking about the Supreme Court, Mukherjee said the apex court has "captured the ethos" of India's developing society while interpreting the mandate of good governance in the light of contemporary situations and challenges facing the country, "whether due to global winds of change or from within".
"This has not been merely an exercise in interpretation of laws or legal order, much less an exercise in edifying jurisprudence, it has captured the ethos of our developing society as it has evolved from the colonial shackles to a social order replete with the essence of human dignity, of aspirations of a populace maturing into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic as mandated by the makers of our Constitution," he said.
The President further emphasised that the Constitution is "a living document, not a relic cast in stone".
"It is a magna carta of socio-economictransformation," he said.
The President said that an "affordable" judicial system is a must in a country like India, where a section of the population is at the bottom of the socio-economic pyramid.
"Access to justice for the poorest would ensure justice for all," he said, noting that Mahatma Gandhi had said his "notion of democracy is that under it the weakest shall have the same opportunities as the strongest".
Mukherjee also stressed on the need for greater efforts to ensure legal literacy. "Instilling positive values in our young lawyers is vital," he said.
Talking about the issue of delay in providing justice, Mukherjee said that "quick delivery of justice is sine qua non for efficient jurisprudence" and used the old adage "justice delayed is justice denied" to stress his point.
"Justice should be speedy, accessible and affordable," he added.
In this regard, the President also rued that the courts are "overburdened" on account of the large number of pending cases.
"There are over three crore cases pending in various courts throughout the country. Out of these, about 38.5 lakh cases are pending in 24 high courts.
"The pendency of cases in the high courts has slightly declined from 41.5 lakh in 2014 to 38.5 lakh in 2015, but we still have a long way to go," he said.
Mukherjee said pending cases must be "quickly cleared" through multi-dimensional efforts, using statutory and procedural norms in areas like process service, adjournments and delivery of judgements.
"I am sure a paradigm shift in the way the public perceives the legal system will come through persistent efforts by judges to clear case backlogs and reduce life cycles of cases. This must be taken as an opportunity to bring in innovation in speedy dispensation of justice.
"Use of information technology and e-governance can make a positive impact in this regard," he said.
Talking about vacancies in courts, he rued that the high courts in the country were functioning with only 60 per cent of their sanctioned strength and lauded Chief Justice TS Thakur for speedily filling up vacancies in the high courts and the apex court.
"Since the assumption of work of Collegium from the first week of January this year, total 145 appointments were made as on April 12. This shows the speed with which the Collegium is now functioning," Mukherjee said.
He also showered praises on the apex court, saying it has earned a global reputation for its superior standards and lofty ideas.
"Landmark judgements passed by this court have not only strengthened the legal and constitutional framework of our country but are widely cited by the judiciary in many other countries seeking to build progressive jurisprudence. The bench of the Supreme Court is known for its intellectual wisdom and legal scholarship.
"(It) has over the years been served by judges who have provided intellectual depth, vigour and vitality necessary to create a world-class institution. I am confident this court will always remain a sentinel of justice," he said.
This is the fourth Retreat of Supreme Court Judges after the first one in 2005.
During the event, CJI Thakur, Law Minister DV Sadananda Gowda, Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court Justice AM Khanwilkar and Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan were also present.