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Queue for justice

india Updated: Mar 21, 2010 22:46 IST
Satya Prakash
Satya Prakash
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

There were more than 55,000 cases pending before the Supreme Court at the end of 2009. The figure in high courts stood at 4.49 million and in lower courts 27.2 million till September 2009. And these figures do not include the cases pending in various consumer courts and tribunals.

Perhaps that’s why Justice V.V. Rao of Andhra Pradesh High Court said on March 6 that it would take 320 years to dispose of all pending cases in India.

But Rao’s estimate might actually be highly optimistic. The Supreme Court has disposed of, on average, 64,259 cases per year over the last four years. But an average of 69,611 fresh cases were filed before it every year during this period.

So, far from clearing the backlog, the list of pending cases actually grew by 5,352 every year. This trend shows no sign of
reversing.

And the Supreme Court is better placed in this regard compared to the high courts and the lower judiciary.

Says G.E Vahanvati, attorney general of India, who is involved in the government’s initiative to clear the backlog: “We are drawing upon the best minds in management and software to introduce modern management techniques in litigation.”

Will that solve the problem?

That’s the idea anyway. “It will give inputs on how procedural delays can be avoided,” says Vahanvati.

But there are people who think, with good reason, that the government is part of the problem, rather than the solution.
“The government is the biggest litigant. It must scrutinise cases before deciding to file appeals. Done properly, this will reduce the arrears to a great extent,” says Senior Counsel Rajeev Dhavan, one of India’s leading lawyers.
But finally, after 12 Law Commission reports and several other expert panel recommendations, the government has woken up to the problem.

Law Minister M. Veerappa Moily unveiled a Vision Document on October 25, 2009, on how to reduce pendency — legalese for pending or undecided cases — over the next three years.

The government is setting up an 11-member National Arrears Grid (NAG) to ascertain the exact arrears and ensure optimal utilisation of infrastructure.

NAG members will do well to start with numbers on judicial vacancies. The Supreme Court is short by four judges (it has a sanctioned strength of 31), high courts are short by 265 (out of 895) and the lower courts by 2,800 (out of 16,721).

The judicial backlog has serious ramifications on India’s economy. Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee recently said delays
in resolving judicial disputes were impacting inflows of foreign direct investments. “Foreign investors always consider the additional costs resulting from courtroom delays (before deciding on committing investments),” he said. “Not only are courtroom delays eating up two per cent of India’s gross domestic product, (they are) also leading to corruption, low investment and inflation.”

Are the other arms of the government even aware of the problem?

In its 127th report submitted in 1988, the Law Commission recommended that the 10.50-judges-per-million-people ratio be improved to at least 50 judges per million people. And by 2000, it recommended, the ratio should be 107 judges per million people.

Even after two decades, the situation has not improved much.

The Supreme Court has declared on several occasions that speedy trials ensured the right to life and liberty, but obviously, this has not happened.

Moily says people are losing faith in the system. And this, he has said, is leading to civil unrest, Maoist violence and vigilante justice.

Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan, who has been complaining about the poor judge-population ratio and inadequate funding, feels that unless the number of courts is increased, the judiciary cannot be expected to function at optimal levels of efficiency.

There is a Vision Document available with the government that recommends the appointment of 700 additional judges to the high courts and 15,000 new judges in the lower judiciary.

But there are dissenting voices. “We must guard against mindless increase in the number of judges. If you don’t have good judges, you won’t get the optimal quality of justice,” says Dhavan.

There are problems of resource as well. Planning Commission Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s suggestion that states must fund the move to increase the number of judges did not find favour with most judges and advocates, who wanted the Centre to bear the cost.

There are indications that the government is serious about tackling this problem.

It is working on a National Litigation Policy to change its role from a “compulsive litigant” to a “responsible and reluctant litigant”.

Then, a government-appointed taskforce recommended that the judicial fallout of every Bill be weighed carefully since over 2.5 million cases were filed after the amendment to the Negotiable Instruments Act, which made the bouncing of cheques a criminal offence.

Judicial delays affect 100 million people, assuming that each of the 31 million-odd cases pending before the courts in India involves at least three people. That’s almost 10 per cent of India’s population.

And that’s a big enough number for the government to take notice of the problem — and deliver.

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