Left hanging by the law

Reforming India’s judicial pendency problem presents a human challenge....

Written by T.V. Rajeswar | Published:August 20, 2010 12:20 am

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke of the “scourge of the world’s largest backlog of cases” when he addressed a conference of chief ministers and chief justices in August 2009. Whether these are arrears or pendency,they come under the broad category of pending cases.

The Supreme Court had estimated that the Indian judiciary needed 1547 high court judges and 23,207 subordinate court judges merely to clear the backlog in one year. While the sanctioned strength of high court judges was 886,their working strength was 606,leaving 280 vacancies. The sanctioned strength of Allahabad high court is 160,with 80 vacancies. It was not possible to fill up these vacancies immediately because of the infrastructure problem: unless a new edifice was constructed and suitable residential premises arranged,it would be difficult.

The problem of pendency and the rate of disposal do not depend entirely on the number of judges. The delay is due to several factors. As governor of Uttar Pradesh I dealt with mercy petitions for early release from prisoners sentenced for life imprisonment. In November-December 2007,I came across some disturbing facts. I give three examples to illustrate the problem: Captan Singh,the son of Kaniah Baksh Singh was charged with murder in 1978. The district and sessions judge found him guilty and sentenced him to life imprisonment in 1980. He filed an appeal in the Allahabad High Court in the same year,and was released on bail by the high court soon after. It upheld his conviction in December 2003,after a lapse of 23 years. He sent his mercy petition in December 2007 after less than four years in jail. It was turned down,even though he was 81 years of age. In another case,Dan Bihari of Mathura district was charged with murder in 1979 and was convicted by the district/sessions court and sentenced to life in July 1980. On his appeal against conviction,he was released on bail,pending the disposal of the case by the Allahabad high court,which finally upheld the sentence of the sessions court in December 2003,again after a lapse of 23 years. When he sent his mercy petition,the prisoner was 70 years old,though he had put in only five years in prison. His mercy petition was turned down. In yet another case,Agi of Behraich district was charged with murder in March 1980 and sentenced to life imprisonment by the district/sessions court in 1982. On his appeal,he was released on bail. The Allahabad high court gave its judgment,upholding the sessions court judgment in 2003,after 20 years had elapsed.

When these prisoners were released on bail by the Allahabad high court,pending disposal,they were technically on bail but in fact free men for a period ranging from 20-23 years. Upholding the judgment of the district court and sentencing them to life imprisonment after having let them remain on bail for 20 years and more,was unfortunate. At the same time,they could not be released prematurely since they had spent only four or five years in jail even though they were all of advanced age.

I wrote to the chief justice of the Allahabad high court bringing these three specific cases to his notice and requesting him to see if long pending cases of a serious nature could be taken up for expeditious disposal. Justice Gokhale of the Allahabad high court sent a detailed reply. He said that criminal appeals from 1982-83 were still pending even though almost 40 per cent of the judges were earmarked for the disposal of criminal cases. The pendency was so huge that it was very difficult to say when the backlog would be cleared. In March 2008,I wrote to the then-Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan,referring to the problem of arrears in Allahabad high court,and specifically mentioning these three cases. The total number of pending civil/criminal cases in the Allahabad High Court,including the Lucknow bench,which has 25 judges,added up to 8,19,684 cases on December 31,2007. These included 4,64,291 cases relating to writ petitions,in which stay orders had been issued in most of the cases. In March 2008 when I wrote this letter to the Allahabad high court,it was disposing of writ petitions admitted from 1991-92 onwards.

On March 20,2008 a bench of the Supreme Court consisting of Justices Arijit Pasayat and Justice B. Sadhasivam heard a case pertaining to bail granted by Allahabad high court to a man convicted for life imprisonment in a murder case. The bench directed that in serious offences like murder,bail should not be granted in a casual manner. Citing earlier rulings,the bench observed that factors like the nature of the accusation,severity of punishment,reasonable apprehension of the propensity of the accused to tamper with the evidence,and so on should be considered before granting the bail. The accused had sought bail on the grounds that the decision on his appeal against life sentence would take a long time. In this case,the victim’s family in a murder case opposed the high court’s decision to grant bail to the accused,who was awarded life imprisonment for murder by the sessions court. In view of this directive,the high courts have to take into account any objections raised by family members of the victim and other relevant factors before giving bail. This may result in more delays in disposal of such appeals by the high courts.

The human problems that have been thrown up by these specific cases seem to suggest no practical solution in the immediate future. The judicial system,as it functions today,needs a total revamp. A desperate situation needs desperate measures. Family courts and fast-track courts have not made any substantial change. Judges,senior advocates,administrators and social activists should all apply their minds to reform.

The writer is former director of the Intelligence Bureau and governor of Sikkim,West Bengal and UP

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