A bench of the Supreme Court on Monday gave ample evidence that the judiciary, at least at the higher level, is not blind to its own limitations or faults. It bravely took responsibility for the rising incidents of mob justice in the country by attributing it to the fact that people were fast losing faith in the courts due to long delays in the disposal of cases. This statement, as indeed the recent demand by judges and senior advocates alike for an inquiry into allegations of misconduct by former Chief Justice of India YK Sabharwal, shows a healthy attitude of introspection within the legal fraternity. But should this issue be seen as just a question of bringing in judicial reforms, and quickly, or of overhauling the entire justice delivery mechanism?
The backlog of cases in our courts — 43,580 in the apex court, 36,78,043 in high courts and 2,49,56,919 in district and subordinate courts — demands immediate attention. However, what’s worth noting here is that we find ourselves in such dire straits not because of a lack of solutions or knowledge of where the problems lie and where the beginning must be made. What is required is a coordinated response by the judiciary, executive and the legislature. From lack of expertise in investigation methods, improper prosecution, corruption, poor infrastructure in courthouses, an abysmal judge-population ratio, unethical practices by lawyers and financial constraints in bringing about change, there are many impediments to ensuring that justice is not only done, but at a speedy pace so that the litigating parties neither waste time and money and nor does the judgment lose its relevance because of excessive delays.
Efforts at bringing in reform have, till date, been half-hearted and piecemeal. Let alone increasing the number of judges, there are delays in the process of filling up vacancies both on the side of the judiciary and the government. Criminal justice reform is taking place at a slow pace. Fast-track courts have been seen to speed up the judicial process, but they don’t exist in adequate numbers. Judges themselves have encouraged the use of alternative forms of dispute settlement like arbitration and mediation, especially for civil cases. This could substantially ease the burden on the courts, but if only their benefits were more widely appreciated. The ideas to promote efficiency exist. But the present fragmented approach will never instill energy into our justice delivery system.