Overloaded judiciary: Time to clear backlog

Overloaded judiciary: Time to clear backlog

The colonial practice of long vacations and grounds for seeking regular adjournments should be reviewed.

The plight of overburdened and understaffed judiciary resulting mainly, among other things, to the serious problem of huge pendency has been plaguing the judiciary for decades. There is an estimated over 30 million pending cases which has been plaguing the judiciary for decades. 

The state of the judiciary is so deplorable that the Chief Justice of India (CJI) T S Thakur  broke down while addressing the joint conference of respective high court  chief justices and chief ministers of states recently.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present, offered a closed-door meeting to sort out the problem. It has added a sense of poignancy and urgency to the problem of pendency. It was also a sign of continuing inaction of the government over the appointment of judges and filling of resultant vacancies.

The pile-up of pending cases in courts is an old perennial pr-oblem everyone is familiar with but none cares. The Supreme Court has a backlog of 60,260 cases. While the situation is no better in country’s 24 high courts where 38.68 lakh cases are awaiting disposal, the total number of such cases in the subordinate judiciary stands at staggering 2.18 crore, to say the least.

The real sufferers in such a catastrophic situation continue to be the hapless litigant public and poor undertrials whose  cases linger on for years due to shortage of judges, infrastructural inadequacies and dilatory judicial procedures. All this certainly reflects a glaring crisis in our slow-paced justice delivery system that adversely affects us all directly or indirectly.

Inadequate judge strength is the main cause behind the delay and resultant backlog. In propo-rtion to its population and litigation growth, India has the lowest number of judges among the major democracies of the world – 17 judges per million people (one judge for a population of over 58,800) as against Australia’s 58, UK-100, USA-130, China-170 and Germany-250.

India has only 18,000 judges almost 30 years after the Law Commission recommended a total number of 40,000 judges. Existing judge strength further declines when judicial vacancies are not promptly filled. For instance, the SC has only 29 judges including the CJI against the sanctioned strength of 31. Four judges are due for retirement by December-end, this year.

NJAC logjam

The vacancy level in country’s 24 HCs, if put together, is  44% with 462 posts of judges, against the sanctioned strength of 1065, are lying vacant. There are about 5,000 vacancies (24%) in subordinate courts though the sanctioned strength has gone up to 20,502. No appointments were made for most of 2015 due to the logjam over National Judicial Appointments Commission.

The Union government is still sitting over 170 names recommended by the SC Collegium for appointment as HC judges despite the CJI’s request to it not to link these vacancies to the new Memorandum of Procedure for the appointment of judges which is yet to be cleared by him. There is a government-judiciary stand-off over the issue of finalisation of the procedure for selection of judges. The executive is deliberately delaying the judges’ appointments being miffed at the idea of judges appointing judges.

Our Constitution aims to secure social, economic and political justice to all citizens. It is a sad commentary on our performance that even after 66 years of India’s existence as a modern republic, access to affordable and timely justice still remains a far cry.

What is required at this critical juncture is this: Both the Centre and the judiciary should collaborate on finding practical solutions of the twin problems of pendency of cases and chronic shortage of judges. The situation demands an ambitious infusion of manpower and financial resources, for which even state governments will have to contribute immensely. 

It means that there should be 75,000 judges at a ratio of 50 judges per million people against the current ratio of 17 which  is not enough to deal with what the CJI called an “avalanche” of litigation. Time-bound reforms in our archaic land laws is also the need of the hour, as two-thirds of civil cases in district courts are directly related to land or property matters. Simplification of tax laws would also sharply reduce the volume of litigation in higher courts. The judiciary should have full financial autonomy and government should not treat it as a non-productive organ of the state.

Justice Thakur’s concern for timely and affordable justice is, no doubt, genuine but there is much that the judiciary could do to speed up its process. Primarily, it should fix a time-limit for disposing of cases like in the US. It must also introspect about continuing with the colonial practice of long court vacations.

Judges ought to refrain from accepting frivolous PILs. They should also consider restricting the grounds for seeking frequent adjournments  by lawyers often leading to delays in the administration of justice. For similar reasons, oral arguments could be replaced by written submissions to reduce unnecessary prolongation of litigation. 

The HCs should be the final word in most cases except when the apex court finds prima facie evidence of miscarriage of justice. Procedural reforms, use of information technology and alternative redressal mechanisms will certainly reduce the burden of courts and help improve the judicial system.     

(The writer is an advocate at the Supreme Court)

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