Pile-ups at High Courts

That India’s courts are clogged with long-pending cases is well-known, but the texture of the problem is something we’ve known little about so far. A new database of court data lays out some of the contours of the issue: over 40 lakhcases are pending in India’s High Courts, and a tenth in courts for which data are available have been pending for over ten years. The oldest case languishing in the few courts for which enough data are available is just a decade younger than India itself. A quarter of the cases for which information is available are pending at the admission stage itself. An earlier Law Commission report found that the situation was far more dire in the lower courts — at the end of 2012, some one crore cases were pending in Subordinate Judicial Services courts and 20 lakh cases in Higher Judicial Services courts across 12 High Court jurisdictions in the country. A certain fatality has marked India’s efforts to deal with pendency thus far. We are a big country, we are a litigious people, we have chronic administrative undercapacity and a perennially under-resourced judiciary, we are told. So enormous has the problem begun to appear in the public mind that it has seemed impossible to fix. This is not necessarily true.

For one, the real extent of judicial pendency in India is nearly impossible to estimate on account of an utter lack of standardisation in data classification and management systems; virtually every State is a law unto itself, collecting and classifying case data as it chooses, making it impossible to compare with the neighbouring State. This is not a purely technical concern; it has severely hamstrung India’s efforts to understand the nature of not just judicial delay, but the judicial process itself. There is no good reason for this state of affairs to continue; the technology to resolve this is now easily and cheaply available. In addition, there are simple administrative fixes that have been suggested by reform-minded judges. As Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice A.P. Shah had instituted evening courts to look after traffic and police challans, which account for over a third of all cases pending in the lower courts. Such cases need to be removed from the regular court system altogether. Plea bargaining is another judicial reform step that has not yet picked up in India. Finally, the grossly inadequate judge strength must increase; even if not the doubling of judge strength as promised in the past by the Ministry of Law and Justice, a significant leap is unavoidable. For justice and the rule of law to seem meaningful to the people, the government must back its assurances with resources. –The Hindu


Ajit Ninan in The TOI

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