Delivering justice from docket explosion

Slowed by backlog cases, the wheels of justice cry for imminent reforms

Delivering justice from  docket explosion

Every Indian has a fundamental right to speedy trial and early disposal of a case pending before a court of law. Article 21 of the Indian Constitution declares that “no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to the procedure laid by law.”
However, this right is seldom exercised, even though the life and personal liberty of many are curtailed by running after a case, sometimes even for more than two decades or even till death do them part!

This right is implicit in Article 14, 19(1) (a) and 21 of the Constitution as well as in the Civil Procedure Code (CPC). It is the constitutional obligation of the government to devise such procedures which would ensure and implement speedy trial. In Sheela Barse vs Union of India case, the Supreme Court reaffirmed its view that speedy trial is a fundamental right of a citizen.

The right to a speedy trial is first mentioned in the landmark document of English law - the Magna Carta. This philosophy was adopted in the Indian Constitution, but 60 years after its promulgation it is realised that the goal sought to be achieved is a far-off peak with an astounding 3.14 crore cases pending before the courts at various levels.

The purpose of speedy trial is to safeguard the innocents from undue punishments but prolonged pendency has created a barrier in the mission and led to mental and economic pressure on litigants.

Speedy justice is social justice

While dealing with a bail matter and delay in criminal justice delivery system (Babu Singh vs State of UP), Supreme Court judge Krishna Iyer said, “Our justice system even in grave cases, suffers from slow motion syndrome which is lethal to 'fair trial' whatever the ultimate decision. Speedy justice is a component of social justice since the community, as a whole, is concerned in the criminal being condignly and finally punished within a reasonable time and the innocent being absolved from the inordinate ordeal of criminal proceedings."

One could gauge the enormity of crisis, when the then Delhi High Court Chief Justice A P Shah said it will take 466 years to dispose of all the criminal cases pending before the Delhi High Court if the present rate of disposal continues.

On March 31, 2008 there were 2,324 criminal appeals pending before the division benches, from which 214 appeals were disposed of, says the annual report for 2007-08, of the Delhi High Court.

Whether it is acceptable or not, the statistical observation at the present rate of disposal, assuming the filing of new cases to be the same, would take the court approximately 466 years to wipe out the pendency of the 2,324 appeals.

Till the end of December 2009, the total pending cases in the Indian courts are 3,13,91,526 cases, including about 54,864 before the Supreme Court. There are 40,60,709 before the high courts, including 1,72,302 cases in Karnataka high court. The bulk of the pending cases are in the subdivision and district courts amounting to more than 2.72 crore,  out of which 11.40 lakh are in Karnataka lower judiciary.

Due to the pending cases, India is losing more than Rs 2,500 crore in manpower per annum. If you take two litigants, two witnesses engaged in a case and a case is listed twice in a year, the country is losing 25 crore productive working days per annum. Suppose they would have earned Rs 100 per day (NREGA wage as standard), the country would be losing Rs 2,500 crore in a year.

Myriad delays

In identifying the delay in disposal of cases, it has been found that court system delay accounts for the period of entering the cause till it is taken up for trial; delay due to professional courtesy of lawyers towards each other and lawyer’s vis-à-vis the court that includes unnecessary adjournments. Another reason could be the judiciary going on long vacations following the British legacy.

Another main reason for pendency is vacancy in judiciary which is never full to the brim. According to the apex court registry, as of today in the Supreme Court, out of 31 judge posts, two are vacant. In high courts, out of 895 there are 267 vacancies. However, the majority of vacancies are in lower judiciary where almost one fourth of the posts are lying vacant.

Out of 16,880 sanctioned posts, 2,785 posts are vacant in district and sub-division levels.

Lowest judge-people ratio

The other reason for backlogging is “inadequate judge-population ratio” and lack of infrastructure. Law Commission of India in a report on “Manpower Planning in Judiciary” compared India’s judge-population ratio vis-à-vis developed countries and found that the ratio in India is 10.5 judges per million people (lowest in the world) as compared to 41.6 per million people in Australia, 75.2 per million people in Canada, 50.9 per million people in United Kingdom and 107 per million people in United States of America.

The Centre has failed in its objective to expand the judge strength to 107 judges per million people as recommended by the Commission. Even the Supreme Court in All India Judges Association & others vs Union of India & others observed that judge strength should be increased by 10 per million people every year for five years to meet at least the desired ratio of 50 for a million people. Till the disbursement of Rs 13,000 crore this year, the share of judiciary was a meagre less than one per cent. Such budgetary allocations are too inadequate to meet even the basic requirements to pay salary to the judges and staff of the judiciary.

However, the Central Government plans to usher in second generation legal reforms that would eliminate litigation delays sharply. It would also like to put in place a legal regulatory regime and an oversight mechanism for the smooth functioning of the judiciary without infringing on the independence of the institution.  Chief Justice S H Kapadia has initiated proactive steps in coordination with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give the much-needed impetus to the judiciary.

In the first stage, with a view to fast tracking the delivery of justice and creating centres of excellence, National Law Schools were established. Now, in the second stage, second generation legal reforms propose to bring down litigation delays from over 15 years at present to less than three years.

Justice delayed
Pending cases    3,13,91,526

Supreme Court    54,864
High Courts         40,60,709
District Courts     2,72,75,953

In Karnataka
High Court           1,72,302
District Courts      11,39,691

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