“Ignorantia juris non excusat” is latin for the often-quoted legal maxim that ignorance of law is no excuse. This legal principle holds that a person cannot escape liability for violating law merely because one was unaware of it. Law is a public resource and everyone ought to know it. It is assumed that a person residing or engaged in an activity in an area is well aware of the laws that operate within that jurisdiction. This assumption is based on the hypothesis that a law is well promulgated and published by the government through gazettes and other sources.
But what is law? Law doesn’t only mean legislations promulgated by the legislature but it covers under its umbrella the judge made laws, i.e. legal doctrines established by judicial precedents. In India, the Supreme Court exercises this power to promulgate laws in its decisions. Article 141 of the Constitution of India proposes that law laid down by Supreme Court is binding on all courts within the territory of India. It doesn’t matter whether the law was passed in a judgment against State or a private party; it is binding even on those who were not a party to the suit. The recent example being the declaration of triple talaq as unconstitutional thereby making it an offence. This decision is now being legislated into law.
The Supreme Court is a court of record. Its decisions are recorded for perpetual memory and testimony. These records are used with authority and cannot be challenged. These decisions bind all the subordinate courts, and such courts take guidance from these in following matters. The laws passed in these decisions are equally binding on the citizens.
The question that arises is where to access these decisions? There are numerous sources for accessing all the past and latest Supreme Court judgments. The judgments are compiled and published in various journals and reports. The “Supreme Court Reports” containing cases determined by the Supreme Court of India is published weekly under the authority of Supreme Court by the Controller of Publications, Government of India. “All India Reporter” and “Supreme Court Cases” are other two such journals which have been covering Supreme Court judgments for decades. But these are expensive to buy, and one has to visit a law library to be able to access these.
In today’s digital world, the fastest and easiest source to assess all the past and latest Supreme Court judgments are online. All the judgments are available on various websites just a click away from the reach of anybody. The publishers of the journals also maintain websites with online editions of the journals. Similarly, many websites like Manupatra and SCC Online also keep online records of Supreme Court judgments. Any judgment can be accessed through these websites by just typing in the case citation or name of the parties or the law. These sites also provide headnotes for the cases which help to pinpoint and locate the judgment one has been looking for. But these headnotes are a subjective interpretation of the Supreme Court judgments written by a high stature Supreme Court judge that may expand or contract the scope of the judgement. Thus, relying solely on headnotes may not be the correct approach. Another major drawback of these websites is that they are available free for a limited period after which one has to opt for a paid subscription to assess the judgments from these sites. However, there are few websites like Legitquest that offers all the Supreme Court judgments for free on their online legal research portal. They also follow a different approach of segregating the components of the judgments rather than writing an interpretation in the form of a headnote.
However, another source for free access to the Supreme Court judgments is the Supreme Court website itself. The Supreme Court website is the most authenticated source of the judgments. All the judgments are available with open access to anyone with an internet connection. One can search any judgment on it through case number, judgment number, judge name, date of judgment, the name of the parties, act wise and constitutional bench. Even if one doesn’t know any of these, the judgments can be searched and accessed by typing free text which list outs the appropriate cases. The search can be filtered further by providing in the period during which one believes the judgment has been passed. But it has been observed that the Supreme Court website is never stable.
There are many offline and online sources to access Supreme Court Judgments. These days, it is all about the convenience factor and value-added features one gets through an online legal research portal that will determine the use of it.