Few judges, fewer courtrooms: Indian judiciary tripped by poor infrastructure

Hindustan Times | ByBhadra Sinha, Soibam Rocky Singh and Satya Prakash, New Delhi
Nov 16, 2016 09:34 AM IST

The second part of our series on what ails the judiciary focuses on the crumbling infrastructure and overburdened courtrooms.

The Indian judiciary is not quite in the pink of health. And one of the reasons for it is that the infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with the requirements.

People attend a Lok adalat held in the corridors of the district court complex in Indore, India.(Shankar Mourya/HT file photo)
People attend a Lok adalat held in the corridors of the district court complex in Indore, India.(Shankar Mourya/HT file photo)

“Adequacy of judicial infrastructure is a pre-requisite for reduction of pendency and backlog of cases in courts,” the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms said in one of its reports. The report hit nail on the head as it underlined that the number of judges in India’s lower judiciary is far more than the courtrooms needed for them to function.

Set up by the Department of Justice in 2011, the Mission was tasked to achieve the twin goals of increasing access by reducing delays and arrears; and enhancing accountability through structural changes and by setting performance standards and capacities. In December 2015, there were 16,513 courtrooms available for District and Subordinate Courts. While the government claims more court buildings are under construction, the current number of judges at 16,851 is more than available courtrooms. If the vacancies of over 4,100 were to be filled up, many judges won’t have a place to function from. The numbers highlight the state of judicial infrastructure which is overburdened with a backlog of over 23 million cases.

Most courts don’t even have basic facilities for litigants. Barring the metros and state capitals, most of the subordinate courts lack basic infrastructure for judges, court staff and litigants. But there are exceptions. New Delhi — which once had just one court complex at Tis Hazari — now has six district court complexes.

Poor Budget Allocation

Successive governments have treated the judiciary as a non-productive organ of the state. Less than one per cent of the Union Budget is spent on the judiciary.

The Union Budget for 2016-17 earmarked Rs 900 crore for ‘administration of justice’, including setting up of e-courts and capacity building of subordinate judiciary, a mere increase of Rs 93.35 crore from the previous year’s allocation. The allocation of funds for the development of judicial infrastructure too was scaled down from Rs 500 crore in 2015-16 to Rs 460 crore in the last Budget. Between 2011 and March 2016, the Centre released Rs 3,694 crore to the state governments and UTs for construction of court buildings and residential accommodation of judicial officers.

Until 2011, the Centre and states contributed an equal share but since 2011-12 the fund-sharing pattern was revised with the Centre contributing 75% of the funds. Central funding is, however, subject to budgetary allocation.

The National Court Management System (NCMS) in its Policy and Action Plan said, “Judicial independence cannot be interpreted only as a right to decide a matter without interference. If the institution of Judiciary is not independent resource-wise and/or in relation to funds, from the interference of the Executive, judicial independence will become redundant and inconsequential.” Former Bar Council of Delhi Chairman KC Mittal, told HT, “Funding is a problem and without proper budgetary allocation, things are not going to improve. Judiciary has to be given adequate funds on a priority basis.”

Court staff

The Indian judiciary is one of the largest in the world. Running such a large justice delivery system requires an efficient support staff. But care is not taken to ensure appointment of qualified para-legal staff. “Their working and living conditions are deplorable. Service careers are not clear,” the NCMS report said.

Most states have only clerical staff recruitment who rise to become Clerks-of-Courts, Nazir or Registrar. Between Judicial Officers and such clerical staff, there is no Officer level recruitment of officials, leaving a gap in staffing.

The NCMS said number of staff in a given court is fixed by government circulars unmindful of the number of the requirements. Most of the time, one bench clerk, one assistant bench clerk, one stenographer and two peons, are provided to Judicial Officers, irrespective of whether the workload involves 800 or 8000 files.

The increase in court files has not resulted in corresponding increase in number of staff. To put it in perspective, the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) says that 10 per cent of the cases are pending for over 10 years, 17 per cent between five to 10 years and the remaining 73 per cent have come up in the past five years. A few years ago, some clerical staff at the Patiala House Courts in New Delhi were suspended after they were found to have hired personal assistants to help them handle official work. They said the workload was too much.

Read Part 1 | Waiting for justice: 27 million cases pending in courts, 4500 benches empty

Proposal for overhaul

With the judicial system coming under strain on account of backlog of cases, the Department of Justice proposed an infrastructural overhaul which would cost 9,749 crores. It is proposed to include setting up of additional courts in districts with high pendency, fast track courts to try cases of heinous crimes, more family courts, re-designing existing court complexes, digitization of case records and training and capacity building.

E-courts project

Use of technology is often suggested to speed up justice delivery system. It has been 10 years since the Supreme Court launched e-filing of petitions. In fact computerization in subordinate courts started in 1997. In metropolitan cities such as Delhi typewriters have been replaced by computers. An e-committee was set up in December 2004 to assist the Chief Justice of India in formulating a policy on computerization of Indian judiciary and advise him on technological, communication and management. But the progress in e-courts project — which seeks to modernise and speed up justice delivery system by complete computerization of district courts — has been slow.

According to a report by New Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, “The predominant drivers of delay in the e-courts project identified in this report are short-sighted policy formulation, inability to mitigate foreseen risks, flawed resource allocation, delays in funding approvals, no timely implementation, and lack of coordination in implementation.” Failure in budgeting appropriately for the project, characterized by several cost estimate revisions and subsequent under-spending of allocated funds, is also particularly striking, it said.

The delays could have been prevented with better policy forecasting and coordination of activities within and across all stakeholder groups, says the report, noting that on completion, the e-courts project could fundamentally transform justice delivery and enhance the quality of access to justice afforded to all. The report says it is critical for policymakers to overhaul the e-courts project, particularly its implementation.

This is the second part of our series on what ails Indian judiciary. The third and last installment explores the processes which hold up justice.

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