02 Jan 2020 19:48 IST

Improving the delivery of justice

‘Encounters’ are wrong. But what is really worrying is the status of the judicial system

Before the crescendo of protests over the passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill in both Houses of Parliament reached a fever pitch, the country was gripped by another horrific tragedy.

The rape and murder of a 27-year-old veterinarian had hogged the headlines and that such horrific crimes were being committed with impunity evoked seething anger and resentment throughout the country. The role of the police came under a great deal of scrutiny.

What unfolded later was equally bizarre. The Telangana police, who were under a great deal of pressure as public anger was mounting against them, arrested four youths for the crime. Incredibly, these youths were killed in an ‘encounter’ when, according to the police, they tried to snatch weapons from them and tried to escape.

The people, who were justly angry till that point of time, started singing the praises of the police, justifying the extra-judicial methods. Celebrities and politicians, never to miss an opportunity, heaped praise on the police on Twitter, though some celebrities criticised the police and took a more sober view.

Though the rape and murder of the 27-year-old veterinarian was truly tragic, one can never justify ‘encounter’ killings. The Telangana High Court, quite correctly, has set up a committee to look into the matter and has asked for the post mortem of the accused to be videographed.

Though the delays in our justice system and sloth among the judiciary have fuelled anger among the people, that is not the entire story. The ease with which the common man and woman in this country are advocating rough and instant justice, without the encumbrance of the judiciary system, is deeply worrying.

Delays in justice delivery have dogged Indian society for long. Courts — from lower to the Supreme Court levels — are saddled with pending cases. There have been several reports on judicial reform.

The needed reformation

This year’s Economic Survey devoted an entire chapter on judicial reform. It has a rather interesting title — “Ending Matsyanyaya: How to ramp up capacity in the lower judiciary” — and goes into some detail on how to speed up the justice delivery in the country. Though the Survey focuses on enforcement of contracts and the crucial bearing that it has on the economy and ease-of-doing-business, it does touch upon criminal justice too.

The Survey, unsurprisingly, is rich on statistics — some worrying and some reassuring. It says that the lower courts — district and subordinate courts — account for 87.5 per cent of the pending cases. So the issue needs to be fixed at the lowest level first. According to the document, around 64 per cent of cases have been pending for more than a year. Interestingly, there seems to be no difference in the pendency rate between civil and criminal cases.

Delhi and Punjab have the least number of cases pending, while Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat occupy the other end.

The silver lining

In terms of cases disposed of, 74.7 per cent of civil cases and 86.5 per cent of criminal cases are disposed of within three years, which is not bad considering the other mitigating factors facing the Indian judicial system.

The Survey comes up with an interesting ratio — the case clearance rate — which is the ratio of the number of cases cleared in a given year to the number instituted in that year, expressed as a percentage. Though the number of cases filed has risen in the lower courts, so has the number of disposals. But since disposal is less than 100 per cent, pending cases pile up, creating a backlog.

The case clearance rate was 94.76 per cent and 87.41 per cent for civil and criminal cases respectively, which is quite encouraging though ideally it should be 100 per cent.

The ‘judicial logjam’

Another disturbing statistic is that pending civil cases form only 28.38 per cent of the total pending cases, and the rest are criminal cases.

The Survey makes some interesting proposals to eliminate the ‘judicial logjam’. There are two issues here — one is to achieve 100 per cent disposal of cases and, two, is the clearing the existing backlog. At present, the lower courts have 17,891 judges compared to the sanctioned strength of 22,750. As per the Economic Survey’s analysis, to achieve 100 per cent case clearance, a mere additional 2,279 judges are needed in the lower courts, which is still under the sanctioned strength. However, to clear the backlog in the next year, 8,152 more judges are needed.

In the High Courts, judges were working at only 62 per cent of their sanctioned strength. So to achieve 100 per cent case clearance, only 93 more judges were needed and to dispose the backlog in five years, another 361 were needed.

The Survey has some other important suggestions to improve the judicial system including setting up of Indian Courts and Tribunal Services, and boosting the eCourts Mission Mode Project.

Though the Survey reveals some depressing numbers about our judicial system, it ends on an optimistic note by saying that the problems are not insurmountable. One hopes that the government takes up judicial reforms on a priority basis to restore people’s faith in the system.