Are courts performing?

Index Needed

How effective are Indian courts? There is no measure available to ascertain the efficacy of our courts. There seem to be various indicators of performance of a court. However, disposal and pendency in a court are generally regarded as measures of its efficiency. Many of the problems plaguing our courts stem from the lack of management and technology in dealing with the disposal of cases.

The present system of judges earning units for disposal of every case seems to be delivering only for quantitative satisfaction. The ecosystem of a court consists of various stakeholders who cumulatively impact the performance of the court. There seems to be no consensus in India about the performance indicators of a court. This underlines a need for an objective calculus that would not only assess the performance of a court but also ensure efficient court management. 

There are three tried and tested models of performance measures for courts/justice system that are generally accepted. These are: The Global Measures of Court Performance, provided as part of the International Framework for Court Excellence by the International Consortium for Court Excellence; Court Tools, a project of the National Centre for State Courts; and the EU Justice Scoreboard, developed by the European Commission. Using these tools properly, reliable data of high quality and having guaranteed integrity can be obtained. The scope of applying these mechanisms in a modified manner in the Indian scenario is definitely worth exploring.

The Indian legal system faces a unique set of challenges not only in terms of a large number of cases being filed in our courts, but also in the way the proceedings get prolonged by repeated adjournments, lengthy investigations and lack of effective court management. It is of utmost importance to make the judicial system free of cases that are more than five years old, and to shorten the average lifespan of all cases, which is time spent within each court on a case as well as total time taken by the judicial system as a whole.

An effort in this direction has already begun. The National Court Management Systems (NCMS) was established in 2012 to effectively meet the challenges facing the judiciary, and with a specific aim of developing court management systems.

Further, the Law Commission in its 230th Report suggested reforms in the judiciary and made recommendations on the ways in which delays in courts could be reduced. Moreover, the NITI Aayog suggested establishing a judicial performance index for the high courts to keep track of performance and process improvement in the lower courts.

There is an urgent need for effective court assessment mechanism. Yet, given India’s unique requirements as a country, some of the systems applicable around the world may not be as effective in India. Though it is paramount that there is urgency in developing India specific parameters, however that should not create an inefficient and ineffective set of parameters which would prove more harmful than helpful. Therefore, in India, the establishment of a judicial performance index is one of the means which can help to keep track of performance, check delay in the lower courts and thereby increase efficiency.

One of the plausible ways of achieving this is the introduction of timelines for the completion of the judicial scrutiny of a case in the court, and thereby providing an indicator as to when a case has been unduly delayed. Overall, there needs to be a detailed analysis of the rate of disposal of cases by the lower courts, including the number of fresh cases filed and the number of old cases disposed of.

This would form the basis of performance reviews by the higher judiciary, of the functioning of the lower courts. These measures would bring in transparency and accountability to the system, and also ensure that cases are not being disposed of with undue haste. The level to which the high courts in the states are able to efficiently monitor lower courts would increase, thereby allowing the high courts to modify rules and timelines on the basis of the data collected.

The best way to achieve an efficient and effective measurement system is to base the same on the twin pillars of increasing efficiency and increasing collection of data and its management. To increase efficiency, it is important to tackle inefficiencies at both the bar and bench, along with other stakeholders, namely the court registries, legal service authorities, litigants and police.

Assigning strict and stringent timelines to minimise delays may be considered. Data collection can be achieved by making all the data related to cases easily accessible and in a user-friendly manner, thereby improving people’s faith in the judicial system and also increasing transparency at the same time.

There are multiple benefits to introducing ‘performance indicators’ for courts. In the short run, they can assist in streamlining court budgets and court management; in the long run, they not only strengthen the judicial system but also prove to be a great asset for a country on its path to both economic and social development.

The first step towards the same has been initiated by the Supreme Court through the NCMS, the Law Commission through its 230th Report, and Niti Aayog through the Three-Year Action Agenda: 2017-18 to 2019-20. However, several recommendations made in this regard are yet to be implemented. In-house competence in legal research is almost non-existent so far as the legal systems in India are concerned. A research wing within the state judiciary, the Law Commission of India, the Ministry of Law & Justice and the Supreme Court is, therefore, an imperative.

(Bajpai is Professor and Chairperson, Centre for Criminology & Victimology, National Law University, Delhi. Smrithi Krishna Prasad is a Researcher at NLU, Delhi)

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