Enabling judicial support staff key to speed up justice

The core function of a judge is hearing cases in her court and writing orders and judgments.

In a chapter dedicated to increasing the capacity of the district judiciary, the Economic Survey (2018-19) highlights that the district and subordinate courts account for 87.54% of the 35.3 million pending cases in the judiciary. Unfortunately, a simplistic solution prescribed therein, like most other reports dealing with judicial reforms, is that of increasing the number of judges. While this measure is no doubt important, it is not a panacea to cure the problem of pendency and delay. So far, very little attention has been paid to ensure that the existing judges are able to work at their optimal capacity. Do they have sufficient support to effectively carry out their functions? Unless this is answered in the affirmative, adding more judges will have little to no impact.

What is the nature of ‘support’ that judges need? The core function of a judge is hearing cases in her court and writing orders and judgments. To do this optimally, she needs the support of her administrative staff, which includes stenographers, clerks, peons, etc., along with physical and technological infrastructure, both for herself and her staff. This support system forms the backbone of any judicial system and any shortcoming here adversely impacts a judge’s ability to deliver.

The adequacy of the administrative staff, both in terms of numbers and quality, is essential for the smooth functioning of courts. However, most of the judiciary is lacking on both these counts. A report titled ‘Litigation Landscape of Bengaluru. Series 1: Bengaluru Rural Courts’ by DAKSH and the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Bengaluru, delves deep into issues such as staff number and capacity, infrastructure support, specifically in the context of Bengaluru Rural District Courts. Extensive research over the past one year has revealed that the subordinate judiciary in Bengaluru is severely short-staffed, resulting in the existing staff essaying multiple roles without any additional pay. Further, the existing staff do not receive relevant training to effectively discharge their duties.

Overall, this grim situation results in inadequate support for the judges, ultimately affecting her ability to dispense justice. On the other side, the lack of incentives and career growth, work pressure, and fear of transfers disincentivises applicants from joining subordinate courts. In Karnataka specifically, this problem is exacerbated by the complicated recruitment process involving the Karnataka Public Service Commission (KPSC). The long-drawn out recruitment process conducted by the KPSC for combined requirements of the state government and the judiciary has resulted in extreme delay, uncertainty, and acute vacancy issues in the administrative staff for the judiciary.

Adequate physical infrastructure in court complexes and individual court rooms plays a critical role in ensuring a well-functioning judiciary. This has a bearing not only on the judges and administrative staff, but also on litigants and lawyers. While lack of drinking water and toilet facilities which affects all stakeholders are easily noticeable, what is not obvious is the lack of well-lit and ventilated workspaces for the judicial staff.

Our research found that Bengaluru rural courts, despite significant progress in recent times, severely lack in these basic facilities. The court complexes are not scientifically designed, leading to inadequate storage area, dispersed and dusty record rooms, small workstations and cramped court rooms. All of this results in decreased efficiency levels and poses significant health risks. The staff in the record rooms are known to get breathing-related problems and the only safety gear provided to them is a thin surgical mask which is hardly sufficient to deal with old-dusty files in an ill-ventilated room mostly in the basement, all through the day. Having toilets, drinking water, and enough physical space to work is not a want but a need; these basic facilities must be ensured in all courts to enable the judges and her staff work in an optimal manner.

Further, our study found that staff in the Bengaluru rural courts have to manage with old desktops, dot-matrix printers, and slow internet connections, which also hamper their effectiveness in carrying out their roles. In today’s courts, IT infrastructure is as important as physical infrastructure. With the implementation of e-courts and the National Judicial Data Grid, the judiciary has taken a huge step forward towards embracing IT in its day to day functioning. These developments are truly commendable.

However, the time has come to go beyond the goal of digitizing court records to re-thinking how IT infrastructure can be leveraged to help track case-flows and workflows to improve courts both on the judicial and administrative side. To aid this, the courts must adopt case-flow management rules that are based on thorough case-data analysis and design well thought-out listing and allocation rules.

Most importantly, the judiciary needs to completely overhaul its idea of court management. A judicial officer who is already overburdened with cases in her court, is also the administrative in-charge of her court hall. Further, the Principal District Judge is the administrative head of all subordinate courts within her jurisdiction which requires her to take wide-ranging decisions from staff appointments to allocation of matters amongst different judges, to infrastructure upkeep. This combined administrative and judicial authority vested in judicial officers, who are not trained or experienced in management principles, has led to inefficiencies on both fronts. Therefore, the time has come to create a cadre of court managers in all district courts to aid the judicial officers in performing their core function — dispensing justice.

Apart from the above, a few key measures to resolve issues of inadequate staff strength, poor physical and IT infrastructure, and lack of effective case management are: one, amending the Karnataka State Civil Services (General Recruitment) Rules, 1977, Karnataka Subordinate Courts (Ministerial and Other Posts) Rules, 1982, etc., to ensure seamless staff recruitment by a dedicated recruitment committee at the high court; two, periodically inspecting court infrastructure and communicating needs to the high court; and three, using technology to scientifically classify and allot cases, along with monitoring case-progress through various stages, so as to ensure adherence to case-flow management rules applicable to subordinate courts.

(Shruthi Naik is a research associate at DAKSH; Deepika Kinhal is a senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, Karnataka)

Comments (+)