How to reform India’s judicial system
Improve district courts, identify pending cases and encourage case and court managementUpdated: Nov 07, 2019, 18:12 IST
The time has come,” the walrus said, “to talk of many things”. One of them is the necessity of reforms in India’s justice delivery system. Over the years, the Law Commission of India’s reports have recommended several reforms. In addition to these, there were reports by Justice GC Rankin (1925), Justice SR Das (1949), and Justice VS Malimath (2003). Civil society organisations have also released reports on the different facets of the justice delivery system. Despite the plethora of such documents, the inefficient justice delivery system has only become more inefficient.
To redress the situation, we need to have a bottom-up approach. The principal problem is with the district courts where lakhs of litigants come into contact with the justice delivery system. Unless the problems of these courts are addressed, other temporary changes and ad hoc reforms at the Supreme Court and high courts will have no bearing on the system, and the average litigant will continue to suffer “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
It is time to stop discussing hackneyed issues such as filling up vacancies (how many judges do we really need?), tackling the huge number of pending cases (how do you define pendency?), and establishing special courts or fast-track courts (now special fast-track courts and fast-track special courts) and get on with reforms. Lord Devlin is believed to have said: “If our business methods were as antiquated as our legal system, we would have become a bankrupt nation long back”. How true, in our context.
Here are some suggestions to improve the legal system: First, improve the district courts. A high-level team must visit each district court to ascertain what is lacking in terms of infrastructure and facilities. It would surprise many to know that many court halls and rooms for the registry have not been whitewashed for several years. Broken windows, chairs, shelves and almirahs can be found across most.
Second, identify the number of pending cases and the status of each case. My experience has been that judges know the number of pending cases, but not their status. During a discussion organised by the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal, it became clear that a large number of criminal cases are being shown as pending because of inadequate or insufficient responses from the prosecution. With some assistance, such cases can literally be disposed of in a matter of minutes.
Discussions must also be held with district court judges to appreciate the bottlenecks they encounter in their day-to-day functioning and to understand their needs with a view to ease their high-pressure assignment. Some people tend to postpone decisions, but judges cannot afford do so and must decide several requests and cases every day.
Third, case and court management must be encouraged and embedded in the justice delivery system. (Case management is a comprehensive system of management of time and events in a law suit as it proceeds through the justice system, from initiation to resolution).
The Singapore judiciary has successfully implemented case management, and today its achievements are recognised across the world. Our policymakers seem to have an impression that because of the sheer volume of pending cases, it is not possible to devote time to case management. But this is not true. During a lecture delivered at the Delhi Judicial Academy about 15 years ago, a federal judge from the United States who practised case management informed the judges that he started with about 3,000 cases in his jurisdiction and in three years reduced this number to about 300. Perhaps none of the judges in the district courts (other than magistrates) have such a large number of cases on their docket. It is possible, therefore, through effective case management, to reduce the workload to manageable limits.
These are some illustrative suggestions, but there is enough data and research that can be used to change the legal system. However, what is absent is a strong will to change. It is worth recalling from the preface to the Justice Malimath Committee’s report: “Everything has been said already, but as no one listens, we must always begin again.” (Andre Gide). A beginning can be made (again) today, and with the “nudges” suggested by several organisations in the India Justice Report, which was released on November 7 in New Delhi.