The Indian justice system is one of the most important pillars of the Indian democracy. But for all its power, it remains erratic, under-staffed and above all slow. The result – prominent cases such as the 1984 Sikh riots still await a final decision with many of the accused and those seeking justice having died in the long 32-year wait. The direness of the situation can be gauged from that particularly embarrassing episode last year when ex-Chief Justice T.S. Thakur broke down in front of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, pleading for more resources to deal with the overwhelming resource crunch. That old saying, justice delayed is justice denied, sadly holds true for India.
The Indian Judicial System follows a three-tier system – the lower courts, the state High Courts and the Supreme Court, India’s highest constitutional court. All three systems, currently face many challenges.
Securing justice is riddled with difficulties from the very start for the ordinary Indian. The procedural difficulties one faces in getting their case heard is a big contributor to the chaos in the system. From getting an FIR registered to going to a lower court which takes its own time to decide cases and maybe even the High Court or Supreme Court in case of dissatisfaction, means a case can take years to decide. Add to this the huge number of vacancies existing in the Courts, and the situation gets truly distressing.
According to official figures, there are more than 27 million legal cases pending in various courts in India, 6 million of which have been stuck in courts for 5 years or more. To manage this caseload, India has only 16,000 courtrooms and barely enough judges to preside over and carry out hearings. The Supreme Court is currently short of five judges with two due to retire in March 2017. 24 High Courts currently have 464 vacant posts for judges. In subordinate courts, this number is as high as 4,166. There is one judge for every 73,000 people in India, seven times worse than the United States. “If the nation’s judges attacked their backlog nonstop—with no breaks for eating or sleeping—and closed 100 cases every hour, it would take more than 35 years to catch up,” Bloomberg Businessweek had calculated.
This, even when the Law Commission of India, had recommended a fivefold increase in the number of judges in Indian courts as far back as 1987. This gaping hole in the vacancies not only creates inordinate delays in getting justice but has brought the entire system to the brink of collapse and repeatedly contributed to what can be rightfully called ‘miscarriage of justice’.
The lack of manpower in the lower judiciary, aka the sessions court, is particularly problematic since a major chunk of pending cases is lying in the subordinate courts. While the wheels of judicial reform through the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act did spin in terms of a new system of recruitment of judges, it got stayed through a court order that is yet to take off again.
The deeper malaise, though, lies not just in the corruption in the system or the quality of workforce but the amount of resources the government earmarks for spending on judiciary. For the 2016 budget, only 0.2% of the budget was dedicated to the law ministry – one of the lowest allocations given to a law ministry in the world. In comparison to India, the United Kingdom allocates up to 1.4% of its budget and USA a whopping 4.3%.
To draw the system out of slumber, we need drastic and imaginative steps. Some of them could be:
1. Setting up fast-track courts and benches to speed up pending cases.
2. Implementing a strong reprimand for bringing up flippant cases – This will not only ensure that the cases that come to the lower courts are valid but also those which can be worked on quickly. Moves such as the Supreme Court imposing fines for frivolous cases are a welcome step towards warding off unwanted petitions.
3. A plan to increase the strength of the judiciary fivefold by expanding recruitments on all levels and ensuring proper training and surveillance of new appointees.
4. Keeping the courts open 365 days a year. This, of course, is a long-term goal but one that needs to be seriously pondered upon.
5. Modernisation of courts. When everything is being modernised, why should courts be left behind? Our courts should be fully digitised and technical experts should be brought in to streamline the whole process right from when a person files a case, to updating it, to the final verdict. Using editors to simplify technically dense final judgements could also be another step.
6. Ensure stalling tactics are strongly reprimanded. There is no great mystery to this modus operandi which not only piles up work in the court but also sadly is a reason for the rampant corruption present in the judiciary today. A panel which addresses this problem and gives out remedies is the need of the hour.
7. Revision of old laws and regulations. More than a thousand of India’s laws date back to the British Raj, some of which are mere loopholes in the workings of the court and thus must be done away with in order to ensure that justice can be served quickly and effectively.
The mess in the justice system only ends up harming the interests of the nation. That is why it becomes even more important for the government to solve this crisis. The success of Indian democracy, eventually, depends on this crucial intervention.
Yashasvini Mathur is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.