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Just 30 days to justice

The average court case now lasts a whopping 15 years, and more are being added to the lot every day. Instead, Maharashtra has found a way to settle petty disputes outside court. And it’s even helping turn potential feuds into friendships, report Alex Fernandes and Arnab Kumar Hazra.

india Updated: Aug 10, 2009 02:07 IST

It was a rainy day and Shripati Navghane had just herded his cattle out to graze in the pastures of Vasuli village, in the mountain-locked Satara district of Maharashtra.

Suddenly, a stone the size of a closed fist was hurled at his grazing buffalo.

Blood gushed from its eye, which had been nearly gouged out, and the animal bellowed in pain.

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Shripati, who was squatting nearby, scurried on spindly legs to catch a glimpse of the assailant.

“I knew it was Narayan Navghane’s son,” says Shripati. “But I had to get a look because I knew the council would ask if I had seen him with my own eyes.”

Shripati can still barely conceal his anger, even as Narayan stands beside him in silence, head bowed.

But they aren’t really enemies any more. The village’s disputes redressal council has seen to that.

“We both decided to take the matter to the village council because we didn’t want an endless, complicated court case,” says 50-something Shripati. “I sought monetary compensation to meet the expenses of getting the buffalo’s eye treated. I got the money. It worked well for me.”

Narayan, a wrinkled farmer of indeterminate age, nods in agreement.

“Maybe my son did not mean to hurt the animal,” he says, slightly on the defensive. “But yes, it was my boy’s fault. So I agreed to pay the price deemed fit by the village committee and the other party.”

It’s been two years since then deputy chief minister R.R. Patil launched his Mahatma Gandhi Dispute-Free Village Scheme in Maharashtra. Over 4.5 lakh disputes have been settled across the state since then, in a unique take on near-instant justice through mediation.

It’s a model that could help reduce the number of petty cases filed every day across the country — and even help reduce the crushing load of pending cases holding up justice.

There are currently 2.64 crore cases pending across India.

In end-2005, there were over 5 lakh cases that were over 10 years old — in the high courts alone.

The average duration of a trial, in fact, is now a whopping 15 years, as against the international benchmark of a maximum of three years.

With too few judges tackling an ever-increasing workload, most hearings end in instant adjournments as courts attempt to clear their dockets within the working day.

The solution can only be two-pronged: Recruit more judges and improve back-end operations and case-flow management. But also, move towards ensuring that judges only hear those cases that absolutely cannot be settled out of court.

That’s where the dispute-free villages scheme comes in.

“The matters dealt with are of a petty nature, those that can be nipped in the bud at the community level,” says Manik Gutte, under-secretary at the state Home Department and the man overseeing the functioning of the scheme. “The idea is to not let such petty squabbles end up as complaints at local police stations and, eventually, the courts.”

The way it works is simple: Each village council or gram sabha elects between 20 and 30 people to its disputes redressal committee. If the village is home to a police officer, journalist or retired judge, they are automatically invited to join. The composition and working of this committee is then overseen by district-level disputes redressal cells set up within the police force, which also conducts periodic audits of the proceedings.

Re-elections are at the discretion of the gram sabha, and are usually rotational, with a third of each council being phased out and fresh candidates elected.

As long as both parties agree to take the dispute to a council, the council is empowered to hear any case that does not include a cognisable offence (serious crimes like murder, rape and robbery must be reported directly to the police).

The only other condition is that both sides agree to the resolution — in effect, a formalised and yet instant system of mediation and arbitration.

If the resolution offered by the council is unacceptable to either party, the matter proceeds to the official channels — the police and the courts.

“The scheme has also taken a lot of pressure off the police,” says Constable Sachin Pawar of Satara’s Dispute-Free Villages Cell, set up to help implement the scheme and oversee the working of the councils in the district. “It also helps maintain law and order and prevent crime in rural areas, because most feuds, which invariably turn violent, begin as petty squabbles.”

The best part: The average pendency for these cases is just 30 days — the councils meet monthly and adjournments are unheard of.

“The concept of expanding this scheme to cover more states is quite feasible,” says R.K. Kalia, director of coordination at the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. “In fact, the Centre recently recommended that state governments undertake such measures to improve governance and reduce the burden on various departments.”

To tackle case backlog, though, case flow management could be improved within the judiciary, with similar cases marked to the same judge so one judgment can dispose of many.

Ideally, a court administrator — a qualified manager with an MBA — could be made responsible for case and case-flow management, implementing timelines, looking into why cases have overshot timelines, helping in more equitable distribution of cases among judges, re-organising back-office functions, introducing new technology and computerisation of records etc.

Meanwhile, with cases against the government forming a huge chunk of all disputes in court, the Centre is planning a grievances redressal system of its own.

“We propose to have an ombudsman in every department,” says Union Minister of Law & Justice M. Veerappa Moily. “So, if people are not satisfied with a particular government department, they can go to the ombudsman before going to court and increasing the number of pending cases.”

(With inputs from Sumegha Gulati)

Out-of-court settlement

The Problem

With 2.64 crore cases pending across India, justice is nearly always delayed in India. The duration of the average court case, in fact, is now up to a whopping 15 years — as against a global benchmark of three years at most. And every day, as an understaffed judiciary struggles with the backlog, more cases are filed, many of them for offences as petty as a buffalo injured by a neighbour or a fight between youngsters.

n Expand the dispute-free villages scheme to all rural areas, using a formalised system of instant arbitration and mediation to prevent petty cases from getting to the police and eventually the courts.

n It takes a maximum of one month to resolve these disputes at the village council level, since the council meets every month and adjournments are unheard of.

n The scheme also eliminates the bitterness that follows court verdicts, since the one condition at the village councils is that both sides agree to the resolution.

n In addition to the dispute-free villages scheme, there must be better workforce planning within the judiciary, with an improvement in back-office functions and the use of computerisation to speed up paperwork.

n A court administrator — a qualified manager with an MBA — could be made responsible for case and case-flow management, implementing timelines, looking into why cases have overshot timelines, helping in more equitable distribution of cases among judges, re-organising back-office functions, introducing new technology and computerisation of records etc.