How Covid pandemic hit the justice system
The justice system entered the year 2020 in ill-health and chronic co-morbidities of infrastructure both human and physical, inadequate representation, a historical burden of judicial pendency, and prison overcrowding. And while it may take some time to assess the impact of the pandemic on pre-existing deficits, some early projections can be made.
For instance, according to National Judicial Data Grid there was a 66% drop in cases filed between April-June 2020 compared to the same period in 2019. Even if half of these cases are filed now that the courts have begun functioning, in the next few months, the pent up demand added to the already pending 43 million cases will pose a near insurmountable challenge to the courts.
The second edition of the India Justice Report, which used 87 metrics across police, prisons, judiciary and legal aid systems, offered a ready reckoner of the justice system as a whole. One of the biggest deficits, the report points out, is the extent of vacancies across all four pillars. In the judiciary, on average, one in three judges in the High Court and one in four among subordinate judges were yet to be hired.
Thus, it is critical to address and repair the deficits, whether of human resource, or budget allocation or technology adoption or training capacity — a small sample of the factors we have been measuring in our reports — as we begin to assess the effect of the pandemic.
To start with, a vital lesson that we must take on board immediately is to consider the delivery of justice, through courts and legal aid clinics, an essential service. If there was one thing we learnt from 2020 it was the absolute importance of locally available accessible service: whether of food, healthcare or employment. This must be applicable to justice too.
While prisons and police services were included by the Union home ministry in the list of services that remained functional during the lockdowns, courts and legal aid services were not. It is time we reflect on how to make our justice system disaster-ready and functional in all situations.
To be sure, a great many of the frailties of structure and performance have ailed the justice system for a long time.
IJR 2020 reveals that on average, police stations serve much larger areas in rural India as compared to cities. In Andhra Pradesh, for instance, the area coverage of a rural police station was nearly 12 times its urban counterpart (224 sq km to 19 sq km). In Uttar Pradesh, the area served by rural police stations is roughly 16 times that of an urban police station (235 sq km to 16 sq km).
Even free legal aid — guaranteed under the Constitution — is unavailable to a great many despite National Legal Services Authority’s mandate that there should be one legal services clinic for a reasonable cluster of villages. The IJR reveals that nationally, there is only one clinic for 42 villages. In states like UP and Odisha, there is just one for over 500 and 300 villages respectively.
These frailties are compounded by rigidly hierarchical internal cultures that resist accountability. They remain unrepaired because of inattention to ensure that every worker complies with constitutional imperatives bereft of social prejudice, and is also trained and skilled upregularly to fulfil their mandates. Covid-19 and the lockdown only highlighted this state of unpreparedness.
To be sure, despite challenges of money and manpower, there has been improvement across the four pillars over time. Women personnel in the police went up to 10% from 7% in the first IJR; between 2018 and 2020, 28 states/Union Territories have managed to reduce the share of cases pending for more than five years, and nationally, the utilisation of NALSA funds has improved to 94.2% from 70.7% in the first IJR.
However, treating all the pillars of social justice as an essential service — which cannot be suspended at any point in time and which every citizen, irrespective of their location, can take for granted — would go a long way in reifying institutional improvement.
What would it take for this to happen?
For one, policy makers and duty-holders need to coordinate efforts across police prisons judiciary and legal aid to identify urgent repairs than can be put in place without much more strain on resources. Illustratively, ensure diversity – has a first call when recruiting, prioritise resources so that legal services are available at the door step of the remotest hamlets and villages: this could mean increasing the number of police chowkies in rural areas to investing in rapid skilling up of magistrates, constables, panel lawyers, and jailors who are first responders.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that access to justice is a fundamental right. Its realisation has faltered too long. The delivery of quality justice must now be seen as a priority and become real in the lives of everyone.
(Maja Daruwala is the chief editor of the India Justice Report 2020. The views expressed are personal.)