Event ReportsPublished on May 13, 2005
Securing justice - social, economic and political to all citizens is one of the key mandates of the Indian Constitution. This has been explicitly made so in the Article 39-A of the Constitution that directs the State 'to secure equal justice and free legal aid for the citizens'.
Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: The Plight of Indian Poor
Securing justice - social, economic and political to all citizens is one of the key mandates of the Indian Constitution. This has been explicitly made so in the Article 39-A of the Constitution that directs the State "to secure equal justice and free legal aid for the citizens". But the experiences of last 57 years show that the State has failed squarely on addressing some very basic issues--quick and inexpensive justice and protecting the rights of poor and the vulnerable. The justice delivery system is on the verge of collapse with more than 30 million cases clogging the system. There are cases that take so much of time that even a generation is too short to get any type of redressal. 

The criminal justice system is at its worst. The poor man in this country has no faith on the efficacy of the criminal redressal system. A brief look at some of the juridical statistics would tell the true story of the state of justice in India today : 

  • On an average 50 lakh crimes are registered every year, which are sought to be investigated by the police. 

  • The pendency of criminal cases in subordinate courts is in the region of 1.32 crore and the effective strength of judges is 12,177.

  • The number of under-trials in criminal cases pending in the courts are 1.44 crores and of these over 2 lakh persons are in prison.

  • Around 63 lakh persons get arrested every year and over 2500 are victims of custodial violence including deaths and torture in police custody.

  • On an average courts are able to dispose off 19 per cent of pending cases every year, 

  • One reliable estimate puts it that clearance of all pendency in the courts in next three years would require a six fold increase in the numbers of judges which in turn would need six times increase in infrastructures and support staff. 

  • But the resource allocation to the judiciary tells a different story. The Plan allocation to judiciary in the Ninth Plan was mere 0.0711 per cent from a total outlay of Rs.6,00,000 crores, not even 0.1 per cent of total plan outlay. In the Tenth Plan, out of an allocation of Rs. 8,00,000 crores, the allocation made for the judiciary is 0.078%; that is less than one-tenth; less than 1,000 crores for next years.

When invited to address some of these challenges facing the Indian judiciary, Justice B.P. Singh, a serving judge of Supreme Court, known for innovations in justice delivery system, made a detailed presentation on issues that hold back judiciary to deliver justice. Speaking on a topic "Justice Delayed is Justice Denied: The Plight of Indian Poor" at Observer Research Foundation, on May 13, 2005,Justice B.P. Singh said that "the situation today is so grim that if a poor is able to reach to the stage of a High Court, it should be considered as an achievement". Justice for a vast majority of our population has become a mirage. While judiciary has to share much of the blame, Justice Singh drew the attention of participants to various dynamics in which the courts operate.. 

Giving an honest account of the background in which the judiciary operates, the learned Judge said that the tendency in every case registered is that it starts from the lowest and moves on to the highest level irrespective of its importance. If every case has potential to travel up to the Supreme Court, then one can imagine the plight of the Highest Court. Besides, Justice Singh felt that " the general tendency to take a chance in litigation is doing serious damage to the judiciary. In addition, too many revisions, bails, applications make one case almost five case." In large number of cases even after the Supreme Court adjudicates, there is always room for 'review petition' and of late another such option "review of review" has been devised as a last appeal to review petition. This is one such example of how cases can be prolonged and justice can be delayed. 

Besides, the honorable judge blamed the governments (Center and States) for contributing maximum to backlogs. Not only the government is the biggest litigant of all, it is again the government that creates situations leading to fresh litigations because in most of the cases, it fails to honor judicial decisions. While a hearing on fresh petition against government inaction takes a minimum of one year, the contempt notice and then the petition to challenge such contempt at a higher court drags the issue further, thereby causing unnecessary delays. This implies that if someone wants to exploit the laws and procedures, one can do it for any longer. Yet, Justice BP Singh thought the main obstacle to speedy justice is the "regime of adjournment." He said that the root cause to this growing phenomenon of adjournment is the nexus between lawyers and the litigants. While delay fills lawyers purse, it gives some reprieve to a litigant who has enough money. 

Justice Singh sought the attention of the participants to issues and events that are often beyond judicial control. He said that one should visit a subordinate/district court and find on his/her own admission the conditions under which the lower court judges do the business of justice. The almost non-existent infrastructures and the oppressive work environment in the lower courts would appall one. Narrating his personal experiences in many of the Subordinate Courts in Bihar and other backward states, Justice Singh said that "in several cases, they do not have a fan, typewriter or proper chairs. Even where there are fans, there is hardly electricity. 

There are judges who write judgment in their own hands, as they are not provided with steno/type writers". Besides, the job conditions are not very attractive. Most often they are posted to remote places and there is routine transfer every two years. All this keeps many bright candidates away from subordinate judicial services. Besides, they have little autonomy, as the judicial bosses at the High Court are supreme. Further, contrary to what people believe that judges have plenty of times to relax, all judges have to work extra 7-8 hours everyday to read about the cases and examples. Every judge has to do lots of home works before they deliver a judgment. In fact, Saturday and Sundays are most taxing days for a judge. 

Speaking on the strategies to deal with judicial delay, Justice Singh felt that it is a daunting task which requires multiple strategies. He thought that an improved justice delivery system means cutting down number of adjournments, reducing the time for arguments, checking review petitions/frivolous petitions, stopping lawyers extending the cases and so on. Citing from his own experiences, he said that it is not always easy to cut adjournments as lawyers would strongly oppose to any such move by a judge and there are cases in which an individual judge will be identified and propaganda will be made against such judge. But he felt that it would be possible to reduce the number of adjournments if a judge is firm and sound in arguments. Besides, giving a specific time limit to a lawyer can cut down lengthy arguments. He suggested that the US system that allows a lawyer half an hour to finish his argument would be of immense help. 

Secondly, on issue of filling up vacancies of judges, he said that this is something tat should be the priority of the Executive branch to ensure. Sadly, this issue has been neglected for too long. 

Thirdly, alternate dispute mechanisms should be adopted to clear backlogs on a priority basis. Citing his own contribution in experimenting with fast track courts in Maharastra, Justice Singh said that proved to be a very successful experimentation having conviction rate up to 80 per cent. This can be modeled on to address huge backlogs particularly in civil suits. 

Fourthly, Justice Singh called for specialized training for the lawyers. Unfortunately, today anybody who holds a law degree becomes a lawyer. This is not case in most of the Western Countries. In this context, the bars have to play a critical role in reducing number of adjournments, appeals and reviews. 

Finally, the learned judge felt that while the problem of delay looks daunting, it can be done by a phased manner by having more fast track courts, making judicial services more attractive thereby attracting good lawyers and filling up all vacancies at various courts. He concluded by saying that while making justice faster and inexpensive is the core objective, it should not be done in zeal to dispose number of cases, which would mean compromising on quality. That would be disastrous for the whole justice system. 

Report prepared by Niranjan Sahoo, Research Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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