Sunday, January 8, 2012

Justice delayed, denied

Justice delayed, denied:

The crying need for judicial reforms

Union Minister for Law and Justice Salman Khurshid should direct his attention at reforming an archaic justice system that takes years — often several decades — to decide cases. Even the buzz that has accompanied the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill cannot relegate the urgent need to revamp the process and provide faster justice to millions of harassed litigants who throng the courts across the country for relief. This is because although the Bill proposes to ensure greater probity in the conduct of judges, it has nothing to offer on speeding up the process of justice itself. That would need wide-ranging changes in the various provisions of the Indian Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure which guide our justice system. It is not that the problem is unknown to our policy-makers; at various functions and seminars, Ministers, jurists and judicial experts have often voiced the demand to refurbish the system to make it more nimble and less cumbersome. Yet there has been little visible movement in addressing the issue on the ground.

There are two principal reasons for cases dragging on endlessly. The first is the shortage of judges in courts at all levels of the judiciary. According to available figures, against the total sanctioned strength of 895 High Court judges, there were 268 vacancies. One of the country’s busiest courts, the Allahabad High Court, with a sanctioned strength of 160 judges, is working at half its strength with 81 vacancies. According to a Law Commission of India report, more than 8.5 lakh cases are pending in that court alone. More shockingly, criminal appeals of 1980-82 and criminal revisions of the year 1990-95 are still to be decided upon. While the Law Commission in its 120th report recommended an increase in the strength of judges from the existing 10.5 to 50 judges per 10 lakh people, the Government has not made much headway in doing so, drawing justified criticism from legal experts. The second obstacle to providing speedy justice is the dilatory conduct of judges in the lower courts which are prone to granting adjournments on the flimsiest grounds. It has been pointed out more than once that many judges of the lower courts are said to hesitate in giving verdicts for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with the judicial process. As a result they use their discretion to adjourn cases frequently, often without any basis. Provisions should, therefore, be put in place to cap the number of adjournments a judge can allow, depending on the merits of the case.

The Supreme Court recently wondered why the case of former Union Minister for Railways LN Mishra’s assassination has been dragging on for 37 years in the designated lower court. The answer to that perhaps lies in both the lack of application of mind by various judges who have heard the case — 22 have done that so far — to come to a conclusion as well as the shortage of judges. But this is just one of the tens of thousands of cases that are pending in the lower courts with moth-eaten files gathering dust. The backlog of cases in the High Courts and the lower courts stood at a staggering 31.9 million in 2010, whereas in 2011 the number of cases yet to be decided upon in the Supreme Court was a little over 56,000. Meanwhile, the number of litigations in regular courts could be checked if optional mechanisms for redressal of grievances like Lok Adalats, family courts and Gram Nyayalayas begin to perform optimally.

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