Legislative intervention may not be the best answer to the problem of frivolous law suits.
The Supreme Court’s suggestion to the legislature to formulate a “Code for Compulsory Costs” reflects its concern over the rising trend of frivolous litigation that takes up the judiciary’s valuable time and resources. But institutional tools already exist to address the problem of vexatious suits. Courts can throw out ill-conceived legal claims and impose exemplary costs on litigants. The detection of law suits intended to harass individuals or organisations begins at the trial court level, and it is the judiciary’s responsibility to ensure that such cases are nipped in the bud. Thanks to influential patrons and deep pockets, such suits may still find their way to appellate courts — but even at this stage, high courts and the SC can impose exceptional costs on a litigant for wasting their time. The Constitution allows the SC to issue “any order” necessary for “doing complete justice” to the matter before it, including on costs.
The SC has mooted that in vexatious suits, “a litigant who has succeeded must be compensated by the one who has lost”. To be sure, statutory provisions of the sort the SC has asked from Parliament do exist in the West, where there is a robust jurisprudence around compensation for frivolous claims. India’s civil procedure code vests high courts with the power to impose “compensatory” costs for frivolous civil suits but the amount they can impose is unreasonably capped at Rs 3,000. If anything, the CPC could be amended to remove the ceiling on exemplary costs.
The frivolity of a law suit is not best judged from the motive of a litigant, which will rarely present itself to courts. Whether a suit is intended to harass will depend on the circumstances of the case as well as the evidence at hand. A fair trial will bring the true intentions behind a complaint to light. The problem of vexatious law suits cannot be divorced, therefore, from effective case management, or judicial functioning generally. Imposing high costs on litigants is only one step towards addressing this malady.