When Justice VV Rao of the Andhra Pradesh high court said in 2010 that it would take 320 years for the Indian judiciary to clear millions of cases pending in various courts, many were simply bewildered.
But six years on, politicians, judges and policy makers – all are worried over ever-increasing judicial arrears.
With over 26 million cases clogging the judicial system, Indian courts are facing a daunting task of clearing backlogs. Bulk of these cases - 22 million – are pending in subordinate courts thronged by poor litigants – who bear the brunt of snail-paced justice delivery system.
The situation appears to be getting worse. According to a 2012 National Court Management Systems report, although the number of judges increased six-fold in the last three decades, the number of cases shot up 12-fold. Even by conservative estimates, the number of cases reaching courts will touch 15 crore requiring at least 75,000 judges in the next three decades, the report said.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Chief Justice of India TS Thakur last month said the country needed more than 70,000 judges to clear the judicial arrears.
This is primarily due to poor-judge-population ratio. With a sanctioned strength of just over 21,000 judges, subordinate courts in India are under tremendous pressure as almost a quarter of the posts remain vacant, thanks to lack of advance planning and poor recruitment policy.
Despite the Law Commission and the Supreme Court saying India should have 50 judges per one million people, the ratio continues to be abysmally low at 17 judges per one million people.
A survey by the Bengaluru-based civil society organisation DAKSH on the socio-economic profile of Indian litigants revealed that over 90 per cent of them were inside the three lakh income per year bracket.
The report said civil litigants spend Rs 497 per day on average for court hearings. They incur a loss of Rs 844 per day due to loss of pay. On the other hand, criminal litigants spend Rs 542 per day for court hearings on average and incurred a cost of Rs 902 per day.
Successive governments have treated the judiciary as a non-productive organ of the state. Less than one per cent of the Union Budget is spent on the judiciary.
The problem is compounded by poor infrastructure. The infrastructure available for lower courts is awfully inadequate. Many courts function from rented buildings, while nearly 7,000 proposals for building courthouses were still awaiting state governments’ clearance.
Last year, the government had claimed that there are 15,558 court halls available for subordinate judiciary and another 2679 court halls were under construction.
According to National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), 10% of the cases are pending for over 10 years, 16% between five to 10 years and the remaining 73% have come up in the past five years.
Lok adalats - an alternative dispute resolution mechanism where parties are encouraged to amicably settle cases out of formal court system -- has been encouraged by the Supreme Court as way of reducing case backlogs. Between April 2012 and March 2015, lok adalats cleared over 4.27 crores cases.
The computerization of courts project began in 2007. But latest official figures claim that of the 21,000 courts, only over 14,000 courts have been made ready for computerization, out of which hardware has been installed in 13436 courts.
Things are expected to improve with the implementation of second phase of the e-court project that began in August 2015. It will see computerization of more courts, connecting all the courts to National Judicial Data Grid, and creation of a better court management system.