‘Justice delayed is Justice denied’ is a basic legal principle meaning if the legal system is unable to provide relief to the victim in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no relief at all.
The phrase becomes more pertinent in the context of Indian legal system, where the time taken by courts of all levels to deliver their judgments is a source of worry and agony for all. As a matter of fact, the State (constituting central and state governments and departments, authorities under them) is the largest litigant in India and thus the major sufferer of this plight.
But the recent trends emerging from the Supreme Court provide a sign of relief. For the past few years, the Supreme Court has been disposing of cases at a faster rate, in line with Chief justice T.S. Thakur’s publicly stated ‘top priority’ of reducing judicial pendency.
Of these pending matters, about four-fifths are civil in nature and the rest criminal. Data released by the Law Ministry shows that only 84 criminal and 1,132 civil cases are pending before the apex court for more than 10 years as of 19 February.
Justice T.S. Thakur, after taking over as the CJI, had advised to focus on the Court’s high disposal rates instead of pendency. The Supreme Court has disposed of an increasing number of cases for the past three years – 40,189 in 2013, 45,042 in 2014 and 47,424 in 2015.
A similar trend, but not one which is consistent, is also evident in the total number of cases pending with the 24 High Courts of India.
Number of Pending Cases in the Supreme Court
Number of Pending Cases in the High Courts
At the end of –
As of 31 December 2014, about 18% of the cases had been pending for over 10 years or more in the High Courts.
The number of cases pending in the District and Subordinate Courts has been around 2.7 crores for the past two years.
Reasons for Pendency
The reasons for such enormous number of pending litigations are increasing number of states and central legislations, continuation of ordinary civil jurisdiction in some of the high courts, vacancies of judges, appeals against orders of quasi-judicial forums going to high courts, large number of appeals, frequent adjournments, indiscriminate use of writ jurisdiction and lack of adequate arrangement to monitor, track and bunch cases for hearing.
Of all these factors, the one that stands out is the vacancy of judges.
Number of Vacancies
Percentage of Vacancies
District and Subordinate Courts
The National Judicial Appointments Commission Act and an accompanying Constitutional Amendment Act came into effect on April 13 2015, but were declared as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court on October 16 2015.
There was no system in place between that time for appointing judges to the Supreme Court and the High Courts, as the then Chief Justice of India Justice H L Dattu refused to be a part of the NJAC. Even after the collegium system came back to life, the process for appointment did not start until January this year.
All this while, the vacancies kept piling up and now the situation is so stark that 9 out of 20 posts of High Court Judges lie vacant, with more retiring with each passing month.
Accepting that the appointment of more than 400 judges was his ‘biggest task’ the CJI had said that declaring NJAC as constitutional, irrespective of its jurisprudential basis, had made the job of superior judges much more onerous and difficult.
Launching of National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG)
The Supreme Court had in September last year launched the public portal of the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), which very conveniently displays the pending cases in the lower courts throughout the country.
The monthly disposal, fresh filing and also the cases filed by senior citizens and women in the total pendency is available for the country as a whole and also state and district wise.
The pendency is broken into civil and criminal cases. Not only that, it also classifies them as cases pending for over 10 years, between 5 to 10 years, between 2 to 5 years and less than 2 years. This was an important step in the digitization of our courts and in making their functioning more transparent.
However, there is a significant lack of uniformity in data maintenance across the courts in various states. This also creates a big hurdle in estimating the real extent of judicial pendency in India and making reasonable comparisons among the courts. There is no good reason for this state of affairs to continue; the technology to resolve this is now easily and cheaply available.
Tackling the Issue
It is not that the Supreme Court has not paid enough attention to the issue of pendency of cases. The Chief Justices’ Conference held in 2015 had resolved that each High court shall establish an arrears committee to clear the backlog of cases pending for more than five years. In the All India Judge’s Association case it was decided by the Supreme Court that judge to population ratio, which is currently 17.72 judges or judicial officers per million population, needs to be raised to 50.
In May 2104, former Chief Justice of India Justice R.M. Lodha proposed to make Indian judiciary work throughout the year (instead of the present system of having long vacations, especially in the higher courts). The proposal, however, did not mean any increase in the number of working days or working hours of any of the judges but only that the judges will go on vacation at different times.
The CJI T.S. Thakur had said, “We can become a superpower only when the judiciary is suitably empowered. We can achieve this task (of reducing pendency) with the cooperation of all people associated with the administration of justice.” Recently, he conducted the first-ever study to determine the individual contribution of 13 senior judges, who have been heading two or three-judge benches in the Supreme Court, in reducing pendency of cases in the past six months – from July to December 2015.
Earlier, the former CJI, HL Dattu had constituted four special benches to clear the backlog of cases which disposed of 2,000 cases pending for over 5 years in 9 months.
But clearly, this is not enough.
Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice A.P. Shah had set up evening courts to look after traffic and police challans, which account for over a third of all cases pending in the lower courts.
Later, as the Chairperson of the Law Commission of India, he opined that such cases need to be removed from the regular court system altogether, and rather could be resolved by other mediums and that this should be done with all petty cases involving small criminal cases. This would leave our courts to deal only with serious criminal offences.
Mediums other than courts used for resolving disputes are called as ADR (Alternative Disputes Resolution) and the Supreme Court Judge Justice Kurian Joseph had also stressed on the role of Lok Adalats, mediation, and conciliation in dispute resolution for easy and timely dispute resolution and for reducing the burden on courts.