The fact that we have one of the most antiquated and painfully slow judicial systems in the world is not news. But when President Pratibha Patil and Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee both warn against the decay and decline in the judicial system, it suggests that things are going from bad to worse. The President’s caution that congestion in courts could lead to people being tempted to take the law into their own hands comes not a moment too soon. In August and September last year, 27 people lost their lives in mob lynchings in Bihar alone. And such incidents continue as we saw this Saturday when a mob dragged out a murder accused and beat him almost to death in Bihar. The Speaker’s lament is that more judges — India has only 10.5 judges per million people — could mean more delays. He prefers the ‘quality-over-quantity’ route.
Unfortunately, we are short on both. This explains why there are three million cases pending in higher courts, 26.3 million in subordinate courts and a quarter of million undertrials, many of whom have been in custody without charges for as long as five years or more. This is because unlike in other sectors that have to adhere to deadlines, the judicial process can drag on forever under one pretext or the other. All court proceedings should be governed by a realistic timeframe, after which those in charge of the justice delivery procedure must be held accountable. Though the Right to Information Act and similar empowering measures are powerful weapons which the ordinary citizen can employ against opaque governmental and bureaucratic mechanisms, it has given rise to ever more litigation. The judiciary should be more selective in admitting petitions and not hesitate to reject those that are frivolous or have the potential to be settled out of court. The so-called ‘fast-track’ courts too seem to have been caught up in the inertia that pervades the judicial system. In light of all this, it becomes all the more necessary to push through the Judges (Inquiry) Bill that is pending.
Here the Speaker has come out in favour of involving outsiders on the grounds that there is no such thing as judicial infallibility, something opposed by many in the upper echelons of the judiciary. But one thing is not in doubt. The judicial process must be made more transparent and accountable. Failing to do so would be to shortchange the common man who has reposed more faith in the judiciary than in any other pillar of our democracy.