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Insights into Editorial: The case that time forgot

 

 

Context:

Vishnu Tiwari, 43, was recently acquitted by the Allahabad High Court in a rape case after spending 20 years in prison. His story is illustrative of the tragic consequences that can follow from cases falling through the cracks of a bloated legal system.

Mr. Tiwari’s appeal before the Allahabad High Court was pending for 16 years as a defective matter.

These defects are usually in the nature of missing documents or documents in the wrong format and are remedied by the lawyer, and the case gets listed.

 

Present criminal justice system: A poorly designed system:

  1. An effective justice system should not depend on a few individuals’ goodness and should be robust enough to ensure justice for everyone, irrespective of the individual in charge.
  2. Many of the hiccups in Mr. Tiwari’s case do not reflect deliberate malice but result from poor design and the absence of an integrated digital platform for the criminal justice system. This poor design can have enervating effects on individual freedom.
  3. While digitisation has transformed the delivery of certain public services like passports, the criminal justice system is still beset with archaic procedures and paper-based processes.
  4. Although the e-Courts project has made significant progress in digitising the works of courts, there remain substantial lacunae. These are especially glaring in the criminal justice system.

 

Sharing information seamlessly:

  1. Criminal cases involve various institutions such as the police, prosecutors, legal services authorities and forensic labs.
  2. Coordination and communication between these institutions are far from seamless.
  3. A criminal case’s smooth movement involves several ‘rubbing points’ where progress depends on one institution securing information from another.
  4. For example,
    1. the prosecutor needs to get the FIR from the police;
    2. The police have to submit the FIR and charge sheet to the court;
    3. The forensic labs need to submit reports to the prosecutors and the courts; etc.
  5. Allowing these various elements of the system to ‘talk’ to each other through a digital platform that standardises the format and content of data across all the systems will allow for seamless communication and will help avoid duplication of data entry and analyses.
  6. Such a system would have alerted the registry that defects in a particular appeal had been left unrectified for an extended period and would have alerted the accused person in prison that his lawyer was not pursuing his case diligently.
  7. Simultaneously, the legal services authority would have been informed of the case so that the lawyer could have been replaced.
  8. The digital platform would have been able to monitor the quality of representation of the lawyer provided by the legal services authority.
  9. The documents from the lower court would have been transmitted electronically to the accused person’s lawyer and the High Court eliminating the endless wait for the ‘paperbook’.

 

Pendency of cases across all types of courts in India:

  1. There’s no singular state of pendency across India. When we talk of the state of pending court cases in India, different states have vastly different realities.
  2. The performance of courts across the country vary hugely, both in terms of geography as well as the level of the judiciary.
  3. Nearly 87.5% of all pending cases in India come from our lower courts which are the district and subordinate courts.
  4. These courts dispose of more than half the new cases filed (56%) within a year, which looks good on paper.
  5. However, such a result is mostly achieved by either dismissing cases without trial (21%), transferring them to another court (10%) or simply settling the case outside of the court (19%).

 

Delay in Judgments: Poor judge-population ratio:

  1. The judge-population ratio provides one of the most important yardsticks to measure the health of the legal system.
  2. The U.S. has about 100 judges per million population. Canada has about 75 and the U.K. has about 50.
  3. India, on the other hand, has only 19 judges per million population. Of these, at any given point, at least one-fourth is always vacant.
  4. Lower courts where the common man first comes into contact (or at least should) with the justice delivery system is also unnoticed and hardly any attention is focused on their gaping inadequacy.
  5. These inadequacies are far more important to the common man than the issues relating to the apex court that are frequently highlighted in the public space.
  6. In All India Judges Association v. Union of India (2001), the Supreme Court had directed the Government of India to increase the judge-population ratio to at least 50 per million population within five years from the date of the judgment. This has not been implemented.

 

Way Forward:

Provision of law and order and justice is the ultimate public good which a state is expected to provide for.

If there’s one aspect of state capacity which impacts the delivery of almost every other public good, it is law and order and justice.

It has profound repercussions for practically everything that’s done in society by its people and it forms a fundamental part of the social contract between the citizen and a state as well.

 

Conclusion:

Although the Interoperable Criminal Justice System is on the anvil to integrate the information systems of the various institutions in the criminal justice system, it is far from being fully implemented.

A critical factor holding back implementation is that these institutions have already created their own information systems that work in silos and are not interoperable.

Priority must be given to speeding up the implementation of such a system that provides transparent, real-time access to criminal justice information to all stakeholders, including accused persons.

From the functioning of businesses and enterprises to the protection of fundamental rights, most of them boil down to the state having the capacity to enforce the law and provide for timely access to justice for its citizens via a judicial mechanism of recourse. India can and must do better on this front.