If justice delayed is justice denied, then the Indian judicial system has perhaps perennially denied justice to its litigants. In January, a law student filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in clearing the massive backlog of cases in the judicial system.
Consider the numbers. As on July 17, 2020, 33.3 million cases were pending in India's district and subordinate courts, 4.1 million in the high courts. Even the Supreme Court had over 65,000 pending cases as on January 1, 2021. Though there is no data on cases pending in the tribunals, the 272nd report of the law commission found that just five tribunals had around 350,000 pending cases till July 2017.
A recent report by Tata Trusts found that of all the pending cases in the lower courts, one in four has been pending for more than five years. The recent pandemic has massively added to this pendency. Between February 1 and August 31 last year, the Supreme Court has seen a 3.6 per cent rise in pending cases. Between January 29 and September 20, cases increased by 12.4 per cent in the high courts and by 6.6 per cent in lower courts.
All stakeholders have acknowledged this problem of rising pendency and proposed solutions, but the on-ground implementation has been painstakingly slow. Last year in June, the Supreme Court called "chronic pendency of criminal appeals" a challenge to the judicial system. From an economic point of view, judicial delays cost India around 0.5 per cent of GDP annually, as estimated in 2016.
Though multiple factors such as slow and inefficient investigation by law enforcement agencies add to the delay, the primary reason behind this pendency is poor judicial infrastructure, including vacancy in the number of judges. Responding to a query in the Rajya Sabha, Union law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad stated that as of 2020, the number of judges per million people in India is 20.91, up from 14.7 in 2002. This is an abysmal number compared to 107 in the US or 75 in Canada. Besides, this calculation is based on the sanctioned strength of judges, the actual number is much lower. High courts have 37 per cent vacancy and the lower courts 23 per cent. More than the manpower shortage, as various law commissions have observed, there is an urgent need to increase the judicial hours. According to former chief justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, more than the numbers, the quality and efficiency of judges play a bigger role in dispensation of justice. "Judiciary needs the right kind of people," he says.
Poor infrastructure and inadequate expenditure also have an impact on the quantum of judicial hours. In 2012, a subcommittee of the National Court Management Systems (NCMS), headed by Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed, in a comprehensive report on infrastructure and budgeting, said how better infrastructure planning could improve litigant feedback, public trust and court efficiency. Yet, the Centre and states together spend less than one per cent of their budgets on the judiciary. According to a study by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, the central government has released Rs 7,460.24 crore to state governments since 1993 for new courtrooms and residential complexes, yet there is a 14 per cent shortage of court halls across the country.
Graphic by Tanmoy Chakraborty; Illustration by Sidhant Jumde (Source: Answers in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha)
What is needed, therefore, is for all vacancies in the various courts to be filled up, judicial infrastructure, including court halls, and technological support to be speeded up. More than that, there is an urgent need to fast-track the reforms recommended by the various law commissions. For a leaner case load by 2025, criminal cases must be taken up on priority and dispensed within a deadline. A separate redressal mechanism should be set up for civil cases. To begin with, though, there could be a higher allocation in the budgets, by the Union as well as the states.