The quality of justice

There is unanimity on prescriptions for the judicial system,but results remain elusive

Written by The Indian Express | Published: April 8, 2013 12:46 am

There is unanimity on prescriptions for the judicial system,but results remain elusive

For all the vaunted independence and strength of India’s judiciary,its working capacity leaves much to be desired. Cases drag on for years because the courts are overwhelmed with the volume of work. India has 15.5 judges per 10 lakh people on average,compared to,say,75 in Canada and 50 in the UK. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh flagged the problem of judicial congestion at a conference of chief ministers and chief justices on Sunday,asking states to actively increase the number of judges,assuring them of Central assistance in shoring up the subordinate court infrastructure. He observed that over three crore cases were pending across the country,of which 26 per cent were more than five years old. Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir spoke of doubling the number of lower courts.

Nothing the prime minister or CJI said was revelatory. Plans to improve the judge-to-population ratio to 50 have been verbalised for decades. The judicial appointment process has been imperfect — the collegium system of appointment to higher courts is problematic,and the subordinate courts have unfilled vacancies despite the government and judiciary periodically bemoaning the problem. The government,in fact,actively and often unnecessarily contributes to the press of civil litigation. The decision to use technology to track and manage cases has been in the works since the 1990s,and it has helped in reducing some cumbersome aspects of litigation. However,many of the new mechanisms to manage the backlog,like the Supreme Court-initiated National Court Management System,have not radically improved matters. The prime minister has promised a National Judicial Data Grid to measure judicial statistics in real time. The question of accountability,though,remains unanswered. The problem of frequent adjournments,based on the lawyer’s convenience,has not yet been addressed.

In the backdrop of this conference was the Delhi gangrape of December 16 that drew attention to how justice delivery works in practice. Speaking of that “national outrage”,Singh committed to fast-track courts for sections perceived as more vulnerable — the elderly,children and women. But that is itself a tacit admission that justice moves more slowly and reluctantly for some than for others and,like other attempts to circumvent the problem with specialised courts,it does not address the system’s flaws. Part of the reason judicial reform is so slow is that governments do not see the political utility of giving it their urgent and sustained attention or pouring money into it. What they do not realise is that this necessary investment in the rule of law will sustain faith in other branches of government as well. The newly visible impulse of vigilante justice,of instant solutions to vexed social problems,is,in part,an indication of public frustration with an insufficiently committed and inefficient system.

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