Supreme Court, in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photograph: Sunil Saxena, Hindustan Times
Supreme Court, in New Delhi on Tuesday. Photograph: Sunil Saxena, Hindustan Times

Can the new chief justice do anything about the old problem of case backlog?

Legal experts feel judges need to be relieved of their administrative duties in order to tackle case pendency in Indian courts.
By Garima Garg
UPDATED ON JAN 04, 2017 03:41 PM IST

In his farewell speech yesterday, retiring Chief Justice of India T.S Thakur reiterated the need for India’s courts to reduce their massive backlog of pending cases.

Thakur, who assumed office in 2015 and made pending cases a “top priority”, leaves behind a greater number of pending cases for his successor, Jagdish Singh Khehar. The number of pending cases at the Supreme Court increased by 1,000 last year, according to the latest annual report of the Supreme Court.

At lower courts, the situation is even worse. High courts saw their pending caseload jump by 60,000, while subordinate courts’ backlog soared by almost ten lakh cases.

During his term last year, Thakur had stressed the need for courts to fill vacancies in order to reduce their backlog, claiming Indian courts need to add more than 70,000 judges to clear all pending cases.

As of March 31, 2016, 20 percent of the judgeships were vacant at both the Supreme Court and district courts, according to the Supreme Court’s quarterly newsletter. At the high courts, 40 percent of the bench was unfilled.

Yet hiring judges may not by itself be enough to reduce the backlog. Instead, experts say, all of India’s courts — from the Supreme Court down to the district court — must become more efficient with their management of cases, even as they work to hire judges to fill vacancies on the bench.

“At the current level of efficiency, if you increase the number of judges significantly, you can make a dent in the problem within the next three-four years,” said Alok Prasanna Kumar, Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy in Delhi.

“Shortage of judges is not the source of the problem,” Kumar added. “This is about process management.”

One way to reduce the backlog is to change how judges spend their time, said Surya Prakash, program director at Daksh, a Bengaluru-based legal think tank.

In Bengaluru, for example, judges spent 44 percent of their time dealing with administrative issues, while in Delhi, that figure was 52 percent, according to a study conducted by Daksh and Centre for Civil Society in Delhi. These figures have not been disputed by the judiciary, according to Prakash.

A judge, Prakash said, should only look after the court’s substantive responsibilities, which include hearing arguments and reading out judgements. Instead, at the moment, a judge is also required to perform clerical duties or attend to administrative matters outside the courtroom.

The administrative tasks would be better left to people trained to accomplish them. “They need to have experts embedded in the system,” Kumar said. He said this expert can be an MBA or someone who understands how to manage processes.

Khehar, the incoming CJI, can take stock of the situation under the National Court Management System (NCMS), which would be under his control. Established in 2012 by then-CJI S.H Kapadia, NCMS has laid down various guidelines for all courts in order to improve management of cases. For example, an NCMS report on case management recommends that a capital punishment or rape case should not take more than nine months in court.

Yet no matter how he uses the NCMS, the CJI’s power to reduce the national case backlog is limited because lower courts are not beholden to his orders.

“The chief justices of high court do not report to the Chief Justice of India,” Prakash said. “That is why this [case pendency] is a problem across the nation.”

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