Indian Judiciary: Contemporary or Structural Lag?
Judiciary is the most important of the three pillars of the Indian democracy. It is the guardian and protector of the Constitution and the rights enshrined therein. A person can approach India’s highest court under Article 32 if their fundamental rights are violated. The Chief Justice of India derives its power from Part V of the Constitution of India under Article 124.
Pending Cases in Indian Courts
On 5th October 2021, the Supreme Court of India disposed of a suit filed about 50 years back in 1971! The judges observed that the case of Dipali Biswas vs Nirmalendu Mukherjee (Civil Appeal No. 4557 of 2012) should be included in the curriculum of law schools.
Such delayed disposals are not new to this country. According to the National Judicial Data Grid records, as many as 86 cases filed in the 1950s are still pending in the District and Taluka courts across the country. The same number of cases filed during the same period are pending in several High Courts of India.
The total number of cases pending in the High Courts across the country is 56,43,252, while the number goes up to 4,10,56,974 for the cases pending in the District and Taluka courts. As of 8th November 2021, the matters pending in the Supreme Court are 70,038 as per the data available on the Supreme Court of India website.
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The Supreme Court functions in a division of 2 or 3 judge bench. However, the matters involving substantial questions of law are referred to 5, 7 or 9 Judge Bench. These are known as Constitutional Bench as the matters require interpretation of the Constitution.
Out of 70,038 cases, 422 matters are pending adjudication before the Constitutional Bench in the Supreme Court of India as of 8th November 2021. These matters include the challenge to the 5th August 2019 presidential order of abrogating Article 370, electoral bonds, several provisions of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and Constitutional Amendment Act, 2019.
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Impact of Pendency
The impact of the pending cases on victims and accused can be understood in two terms:
1. Criminal pendency
2. Civil pendency
Impact of Pendency in Criminal Cases
In criminal cases, the impact is directly related to the violation of the right to equality enshrined under Article 14 of the Indian Constitution.
An accused under Indian law is presumed innocent unless proven guilty except in certain circumstances. Bail is a rule under the criminal procedural laws, and jail is an exception.
However, the Prison Statistics India, 2019 report published by National Crime Records Bureau, India, speaks otherwise. The prison occupancy across the country has been over 115% for the past 3 years. 69.05% of the total prisoners comprise under-trial inmates. This means that 2 out of 3 innocent (unless proven guilty) prisoners are in jail awaiting the disposal of the case.
Incarceration destroys the public reputation in Indian society despite a not guilty verdict and is also a curtailment of individual liberty.
Impact of Pendency in Civil Cases
In civil cases, the consequences are majorly economic and constitutional. “Justice delayed is justice denied” is true for the pendency of all kinds.
Apart from victims and accused, there are consequences of pendency for the justice system as well. These can be:
- High cost of legal fees.
- Witness hesitancy/hostility.
- Death or disappearance of a witness.
- Economic loss.
- Loss of faith of citizenry in the justice system.
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Suggestions From Different Bodies
The 14th Law Commission of India Report, published in the year 1958, attributed the root cause of the problem of pendency of cases to inadequate judges strength.
The 230th Law Commission of India Report, published in 2009, had a theme that:
“The formation and functioning of the High Courts in India need drastic changes so that the people of the country may have fair and speedy justice and more faith in the system.”
It also suggested increasing the age of retirement of judges, which was last amended in 1963 to increase the retirement age of High Court judges from 60 to 62 years.
To reduce the huge backlog, it was also suggested to decentralise the High Courts.
Another suggestion regarding Supreme Court was made to increase the number of judges. And establish Constitutional Benches in the eastern and southern parts of the country.
The 245th Law Commission of India Report, published in 2014, focused on “Arrears and Backlog: Creating Additional Judicial (Wo)manpower.” It suggested:
“In India, previous Law Commissions and various Governmental Committees have suggested various directory time frames both as guidelines to Courts for the timely disposal of cases, and as standards by which delay in the system can be measured.”
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The pendency of cases speaks volumes about India’s rising number of disputes. People with even genuine cause are often hesitant to approach the courts because of such delay in the disposal. It is high time that the Indian government should work on restoring citizens’ faith in the judiciary.
In many situations, we have witnessed people resorting to other means of settlement which is neither legal nor fair. On 16th August 2021, India saw a woman and man set themselves on fire in front of the Supreme Court due to their pending rape case (where a speedy trial is provisioned) for the last 2 years.
A few steps that be taken to make it the last awful incident are:
- Judges should be appointed on a priority basis.
- Establish special traffic courts for speedy disposal of the rising number of traffic-related cases and challans.
- Judicial resources should be deployed efficiently. And the government should hire more human resources depending on the courts’ requirements.
- The retirement age of the judges should be increased immediately.
- Need to push for Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) to reduce the burden of the courts.
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