Malaise in judicial system

JUSTICE AND DELAY

Our judicial system is passing through a crucial phase and until prompt steps are taken to rectify the worsening situation without further delay, the danger is that it might collapse and put in jeopardy the whole state of an orderly society. 

Law courts no longer inspire public confidence.  Litigants get only increasingly distant dates after dates for their next hearing.  Judgements, not justice per se, come after a seemingly interminable wait. 

 Pending cases are simply piling up and our law courts  are not well-equipped to meet the challenge. The phrase “justice delayed is justice denied” often used by lawyers before judges in courts to fast track long pending cases too has virtually lost its proverbial meaning, to say the least. 

Inadequate judge strength at all levels is the main factor behind the delay and  resultant backlog. India’s judge population ratio, being 19 judges per million people on an average as per the Law Ministry’s data, is the lowest among the major democracies of the world. 

Even the existing judge strength further goes down when judicial vacancies are not promptly filled.  For instance, while the sanctioned strength of the subordinate courts is 22,644, the working strength is only 17,509  -  a shortage of 5,135 judicial officers. 

Similarly, in high courts, the sanctioned strength is 1,079, the working strength remains only 695 -  a shortfall of 384 judges.  Though with a sanctioned strength of 31 including the CJI, the Supreme Court has only 28 judges and thus is short of three..  Suffice it to say that in all the judiciary faces a combined shortage of 5,522 judges. 

It goes without saying that each High Court (HC) judge is saddled with nearly 4,500 pending cases according to the ministry.  At the same time, each judge of the subordinate judiciary has around 1,300 pending cases.  They, being overburdened, are not able to cope up with the pending cases leave alone handling the new ones filed before them. 

According to the National Judicial Data Grid while 2.91 crore cases were pending with the district and subordinate courts, 47.68 lakh cases were awaiting disposal in 24 HCs of the country at the end of 2018.  The top court is also not free from the chronic problem of case pendency, as it has yet to clear more than 56,000 cases. 

Industry, intelligence and independence, once considered to be essential traits in an advocate, are being slowly replaced by intrigue, cunningness and corruption.  “Win by hook and crook” has become the sole motto for many.  

Seldom do lawyers feel obliged to advice their prospective clients rightly. 

At every stage, a number of interlocutory applications are filed and adjournments on flimsy grounds sought to defeat the purpose of speedy dispensation of justice.  In fact, the expansion of the judicial machinery will not achieve much until rules about stay orders and  frequent adjournments are also changed drastically to prevent lawyers from prolonging litigation endlessly by all kinds of manoeuvres. 

Ironically, the criminal trial system is run on the medieval concept of ‘trial and combat.’  Might is often right and legal cleverness, rather than truth, triumphs in the end.  

In such a situation, it is not difficult for a clever manipulator to distort the course of justice and obtain unjustified relief in his favour, or have undeserved penalties imposed on his opponent.

Moreover, justice is not only a long and arduous process, it is one of the most expensive things in India, lending credence to the famous Shavian dictum that the law is equal before us, we are not equal before the law. 

Even when one succeeds in securing justice after  a long and tenacious battle, one cannot be sure whether the judgment of the court  —  even the highest one  —  would be enforced, as the power of enforcement lies with the executive. 

When this is the state of affairs at the upper rungs of the judicial edifice, the less said about the subordinate judiciary the better.  There is acute shortage in some states of court buildings even for sitting purposes, not to talk of having enough space for storing valuable records. 

Similarly, the problem of providing accommodation to judicial officers remains acute in small places.   Law courts lack amenities, even basic ones like furniture, drinking water, toilets etc.  This, in turn, is affecting the morale of the subordinate judicial personnel.

Better facilities

It is high time the government identified the drawbacks of the judicial system so that better facilities, not only in terms of monetary benefits but in terms of physical infrastructure, could be provided for attracting bright young lawyers to join the judicial service. 

An autonomous civil engineering wing under the guidance and control of the HC in each state should be created and funds earmarked for constructing new buildings and for providing other essential facilities.  It is the cumbersome process of seeking the state government’s approval for each and every work which is a major impediment.

The modus operandi in many lower courts, far from generating respect, further undermines confidence of the people in the rule of law. If so, what impression will they have of the higher courts of justice supposed to be the guardians of their fundamental rights and final interpreters of laws enacted by Parliament? 

The judiciary can maintain its social relevance only if it retains the public faith in its impartiality and efficacy.  A quick redressal of grievances not only satisfies the aggrieved but also serves a larger social interest.    

(The writer is an advocate, Supreme Court)

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