With more than 3 crore cases pending before the three levels of the courts, the state of affairs in Indian judiciary and alarming. Unless urgent steps are taken, the judiciary will crumble under its own weight and the people will lose faith in the justice delivery system. At the pace the cases are being disposed of, it will take more than 300 years to clear the huge backlog of cases pending in different courts.
While the Supreme Court has 62,794 cases pending as on January 1, 2015, the data available for the 24 high courts and lower courts up to the year ending 2013 showed pendency of 44.5 lakh and a whopping 2.6 crore, respectively. Of the over 44 lakh cases pending in the high courts, 34,32,493 were civil and 10,23,739 criminal in nature.
The maximum pendency of cases was in Allahabad High Court with 10,43,398 cases (out of which 3,47,967 are criminal cases) while the minimum was in Sikkim with 120 cases. The Delhi High Court had a total of 64,652 cases pending before it. Of the 2.6 crore cases pending in lower courts, Uttar Pradesh subordinate judiciary tops the chart with over 56 lakh cases by end-2013, out of which 41,98,761 are criminal matters. Delhi district courts recorded a total of 5,22,167 pending cases, including 3,81,615 criminal cases.
Concerned over alarming backlog and to ensure expeditious disposal of cases, Chief Justice of India HL Dattu has asked the chief justices of all high courts to look into the dockets of cases pending for five or more years in subordinate judiciary of all states. The CJI has set up a special “social justice bench” to deal with the situation besides emphasising on the disposal of petty, compoundable (cases which can be compromised) criminal matters and other civil disputes through Lok Adalats as an alternate dispute resolution mechanism.
The Union minister for law and justice, DV Sadananda Gowda, recently hinted at making amendments in the laws—the Motor Vehicles Act, the Negotiable Instruments Act and the Arbitration and Conciliation Act—to speed up the disposal of petty offences that consume most of the courts’ time. To facilitate speedy disposal, the law ministry is “seriously thinking” of making mandatory pre-trial conferences under which both defence and prosecution lawyers will file necessary statements and evidence without any delay and refrain from seeking “unwarranted” adjournments.
While efforts are on to tackle the challenge, but the piled up numbers suggest much more needs to be done and fast to arrest disconcerting backlog.
“Some of the major reasons for the high pendency of cases in subordinate courts are the poor judge-population ratio, prolonged and costly litigation caused by procedures and lawyers’ interests, poor infrastructure, shortage of judicial personnel and weak alternative dispute resolution mechanisms,” the Standing Committee on Law and Personnel in its report on “Infrastructure Development and Strengthening of Subordinate Courts” stated.
Vacancies and delays are inevitably correlated, hence filling up vacancies of judges in the high courts and subordinate courts is a must. The National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) recently got the Presidential nod. The NJAC, which gives power to the government to regulate judicial appointments, should fill vacancies in the judiciary at the earliest. Law ministry statistics show there are 349 vacancies of judges in 24 high courts and three in the Supreme Court as on November 10, 2014. At present, the ratio of judges to population is 10.5 to one million; it is the lowest in the world compared to developed regions where Europe has more than 150 judges per million and the US has nearly 100 judges for the same number.
Infrastructure development of subordinate judiciary, training of judicial officers, strengthening of state judicial academies, training of public prosecutors, implementing e-courts project for lower judiciary may help in reducing the pendency of cases.
The mutual and amicable settlement of disputes through arbitration and Lok Adalats is quite cost-effective and also provides easy access to justice. Case and court management, evaluation of performance of the court system and procedures are also necessary for smooth running of the system. Another possible way out can be the creation of more Lok Adalats. Between 2001 and 2012, a total of 1,04,728 Lok Adalats were conducted all across India and they disposed of more than 2.4 million cases.
Though already a demand of establishing large number of ordinary courts is pending, yet special courts have their own importance. The special courts and prosecuting agencies on the lines of coal and spectrum scam cases may be appointed to deal with cases of corruption and cyber crimes. According to a senior SC lawyer, “Every judge must be given a target to dispose of cases on quarterly or annual basis. Inability to meet these targets must be reflected in an annual appraisal process. Financial incentives can be given to those who meet and exceed targets.” To achieve speedy and qualitative resolution of a dispute, justice must not be only done but it must also be seen to be done.