The day the Justice JS Verma Committee submitted its report to the government, recommending several amendments to the criminal law to provide for quicker trial and enhanced punishment for those accused of committing sexual crimes, a gang rape victim tried to commit suicide in a Gujarat court because her case, which has been going on since 2007, was adjourned again on that day.
“I am tired of [court] dates. I don’t want to live anymore,” the 30-year-old said after consuming poison. Like hers, there are over three crore cases pending in the country’s various courts.
At the Golden Jubilee celebrations of the Bar Council of India (BCI) on February 16, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged the legal fraternity to find ways and means to tackle this problem.
But what the PM did not say is this: India is facing a litigation explosion and things could go out of control if time-bound measures are not taken now.
In fact, judicial delay is pushing people to try out other routes like vigilante justice. At the end of 2012, there were 59,816 cases pending in the Supreme Court, while the number of cases awaiting adjudication in the country’s 21 high courts and about 17,000 subordinate courts are 43.27 lakh and 2.69 crore respectively (December 2011).
These figures do not include lakhs of cases pending in consumer courts and tribunals.
India has one of the world’s largest judicial systems and it has expanded in the last three decades.
According to the National Court Management System Policy (NCMSP) and Action Plan released in 2012, the number of judges rose six-fold while the number of cases increased 12-fold in the last 30 years.
As India’s literacy rate and per capita income rise, the NCMSP estimates, in the next three decades, the number of new cases filed per thousand population will increase from the current rate of about 15 (up from roughly around three cases per thousand cases three decades ago) to about 75 cases.
By that time, India’s population would touch 150 crore. This means that by then about 15 crore cases would be filed each year.
The US, Canada and Britain have 107, 75 and 50 judges per 10 lakh population respectively.
It has been over 25 years since the Law Commission recommended that the judge-population ratio in India must be increased from 10.5 to 50 judges per 10 lakh population.
In March 2002, the SC ordered that the judge strength should be increased to 50 judges per 10 lakh people in a phased manner by 2007.
But the situation has remained unchanged. To raise the present ratio to 50 judges per 10 lakh population for 150 crore population, India will need 75,000 judges.
Forget about increasing the number of judges, even the existing vacancies have not been filled.
Almost 30% of the 895 sanctioned posts of high court judges are vacant while over 20% of the total sanctioned posts of subordinate court judges await appointments.
The worst situation is in the Allahabad high court where (as on March 31, 2012), 85 of the 160 judges’ posts were vacant.
There are four vacancies in the SC. Don’t blame the government for these vacancies; the SC collegium system is not functioning properly and the high courts are not doing enough to fill the vacancies in subordinate courts.
The NCMSP has also proposed a National Framework of Court Excellence (NFCE) that will set measurable performance standards for courts, addressing issues of quality, responsiveness and timeliness.
All these reforms need funds but we spend very little on the judicial system. In 2013-14, the ministry of law and justice received Rs. 1,815 crore out of the total budget outlay of Rs. 16,65,297 crore — that is Rs. 1 in every Rs.1,000 the Centre will spend over the next year.
To clear the backlog, the government and the judiciary have taken some steps like releasing undertrials languishing in jails on petty charges and using alternative disputes resolution mechanisms like mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
But this is only a part of the solution, not the long-term solution. The issue of judicial reforms may not be very attractive for political parties since it does not fetch votes.
But they must build a political consensus to ensure quick and affordable justice to citizens, particularly the poor. Otherwise, justice delayed will be seen as justice denied.