Insights into Editorial: Steering reform in clogged courts
On the last day before breaking for the summer vacation, Justice Shahrukh J. Kathawalla of the Bombay High Court was hearing matters beyond 3 a.m.
The HC witnessed lawyers, court staff and a judge sitting in court room way past midnight to complete his work on more than 130 matters.
This was a rare occasion in the court’s 156-year history, the incident highlights the systemic issues common to courts in India.
Ad hoc measures such as what the judge did, though laudable and well meaning, hardly resolve these issues. Instead, they can only be addressed through a transformation of court processes.
Glitches in Indian Judicial System:
There is general acceptance that the Indian judicial system suffers from case delay and the use of antiquated methods, the discourse on judicial reform remains focussed on areas such as appointments and vacancies. There is a need to identify other areas such as organisational barriers, infrastructure and court processes that also contribute to case delay are studied.
Nearly 2.8 crore cases are pending in the district and subordinate courts across the country and there are only 16,874 judges to try them — that’s around 1,540 cases per judge.
Another issue is Gender gap in Judiciary, Only 28% of lower judiciary judges in the country are women, a first-of-its-kind study by Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy has revealed.
The lack of gender diversity is not limited to the lower judiciary. The Supreme Court has only seen six women judges in its six decades of existence, and currently has one woman judge out of 25 judges.
In the 24 High Courts across the country, just over 10% judges are women.
According to the report, systemic defects in the appointment process most certainly contributed to vacancies in the lower judiciary. “Exams are not conducted frequently enough to fill vacancies as they arise. Even when they are, the High Courts are often unable to find enough meritorious candidates to fill the vacancies advertised.
Unclear recruitment procedures and difficulties in coordination between the High Courts and the State Public Service Commission also frequently give rise to disputes and litigation surrounding recruitment, further stalling the process.
It is not uncommon to see over 100 matters listed before a judge in a day. When a judge is pressed for time, not only does the quality of adjudication suffer but it also means that several cases will inevitably go unheard.
Matters listed towards the end usually cases near the final stage of hearing tend to be left over at disproportionate rates and often end up getting stuck in the system.
The another important issue is infrastructure: from inadequate support staff for judges to the dearth of basic courtroom facilities. Without research and secretarial support, judges are unable to perform their functions in a timely manner.
For instance, in an interview, a judge said that even though he managed to hear close to 70 cases in a day, it took two days for the stenographers to finish typing the orders.
A 2016 report published by the Supreme Court showed that existing infrastructure could accommodate only 15,540 judicial officers against the all-India sanctioned strength of 20,558.
The lack of infrastructure also raises serious concerns about access to justice. Even basic needs such as drinking water, usable washrooms, seating and canteen facilities are often not available in some court complexes.
The Centre for Research and Planning report stresses that mere case pendency is not to be seen as a bane since it is the inevitable concomitant of growth: economic, educational and social, an indicia of prosperity and awareness.
The report, however, stated that the existence of a large number of pending cases hampers the ability of judges to deal with fresh cases.
The 120th Law Commission of India report on Manpower Planning in Judiciary, 1987, contained significant suggestions for reducing pendency and, for the first time, suggested a judge strength fixation formula. It suggested that the judge-population ratio in India be increased immediately from the then ratio of 10 judges to 50 judges per million.
It is time that organisational barriers and court processes that also contribute to case delay are studied.
We have to focus on two areas that greatly affect court efficiency: case listing practices and court infrastructure.
Registry staff must manage the massive task of re-listing leftover matters in an already bulging docket, instead of streamlining case flow.
Solutions for infrastructure challenges will require a fundamental shift in how courts are administered. Judicial policymakers will also have to expand their reliance on empirical data and courtroom technology.
Bringing external support agencies to manage daily management operations of the court, increasing reliance on empirical data and courtroom technology, e-courts, national judicial data grid, Case Information System, file-tracking and knowledge management systems, provide Interoperability and compatibility with National Case Management System.
Interoperable Criminal Justice System, National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) and other programmes to enhance the quantity and quality of Justice Delivery System etc are to be strictly and immediately implemented.
Recording and analysing appropriate court-related data is thus the first step in addressing any problem that plagues courts from arriving at reasonable case listing limits to improving infrastructure.
Court processes must be modernised, and the role of technology is critical. Courts have taken various initiatives over the years to digitise case records and filing; the case information system (CIS) 2.0 is currently being implemented across the country.
But as judges rightly pointed out, using technology in courts cannot remain limited to digitising records alone but must affect how cases actually move through the system.
Initiatives such as CIS must be supplemented with file-tracking and knowledge management systems, to help courts achieve an optimal level of functioning.
For courts in India to dispense speedy justice, there must be a change in leadership thought and the willingness to seek help where it is evidently required.