India needs 124 years for clearing pending cases in its courts

Backlog of cases has become a big problem for the judiciary — from the Supreme Court to the subordinate courts. At the current speed, the lower courts, may take 124 years for clearing 2.5 lakh cases.

In the last seven years, the disposal rate has increased by 48 per cent in the high courts and by 28 per cent in the subordinate courts, but the pendency has increased. Thus, it is the system (and not the judges) which is at fault. Unless the disposal rate improves, the backlog will keep mounting. To make rule of law a reality, the arrears will have to be reduced.

Speedy justice is an assurance extended to a citizen under the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution. Right to speedy trial is an important right in the UK and US. The Sixth Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees all persons accused of criminal wrongdoing the right to a speedy trial.

The US had enacted the Speedy Trial Act of 1974 which had fixed standard time requirements for timely prosecution and disposal of criminal cases in district courts. In 1990, the US Congress enacted another legislation that directs each district court to devise and adopt a civil expense and delay reduction plan. Similar laws need to be enacted in India.

While new cases in the high courts exceeded 16 lakh cases in 2006, the disposal rate was 15 lakh. Thus, new cases exceeded the actual disposal of cases. For the first time in past eight years, disposal of criminal cases by high courts exceeded. Pendency in subordinate courts had increased from 2.04 lakh in 1999 to 2.57 lakh in 2005. In 2006, the figure has slightly come down to 2.49 lakh. In all, 40,243 cases are pending in the Supreme Court as on Jan 31, 2007.

The executive and the judiciary have taken many corrective measures for speedy disposal of cases. The Centre has been extending the judge strength from time to time, but not to the extent of the recommendations of the Law Commission. Due to these efforts, the disposal rate has risen by 48 per cent in the high courts and by 28 per cent in the subordinate courts. But then, pendency has also increased due to more fresh filing of cases.

Delay is an issue in the US courts too, but it is not to the extent of decades as in India. In the US, numerous reasons for delay have been assigned most of which are outside a court’s control. Judges have many duties. In addition to trial, judges conduct sentencing, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, motion hearings, write orders and opinions, and consider other court matters both in the courtroom and in their chambers. Attorneys and/or litigants may be responsible for delays.

Cases may be delayed because settlement negotiations are in progress. Some courts also experience shortage of judges or available courtrooms. The number of judges in a court is decided by dividing the average institution of main cases during the last five years by the national average, or the average rate of disposal of main cases per judge per year in that high court, whichever is higher.

The ratio of judges per million population in this country is the lowest in the world. The population and judges ratio in India is 13.5 judges per 10 lakh people as compared to 135 to 150 per 10 lakh people in advanced countries. The ratio of judges per million of population is about 58 judges in Australia, 75 in Canada, 51 in the UK and 107 in the US. Due to this low judge-population ratio, the courts are lacking requisite strength of judges to decide the cases.

The average disposal per judge is about 1300 cases in subordinate courts if calculated on the basis of disposal and working strength of judges in 2006. The average disposal of all Indian high courts is about 2400 cases per year. The national average of disposal of cases per judge per year in major high courts is: Kerala, 3,103; Madras, 2,979; Calcutta, 2,919; Punjab and Haryana, 2,900; Karnataka 2,817 and Andhra Pradesh, 2,625.

The national Indian average is 188 cases disposed of among 21 high courts everyday. The Madras High Court leads in terms of speedy disposal of 648 cases, on an average, each day. Tamil Nadu is followed by Uttar Pradesh where the Allahabad High Court (Lucknow and Kanpur benches put together) dispose of 445 cases everyday. Applying the national average of 2400 cases per judge per year, the time for disposal of backlog of cases can be calculated by any one.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court had been successful in increasing the disposal of cases due to special efforts of the judges. The average disposal of cases in this High Court is 2900 as against the national average of 2400 per year. The number of cases pending in this High Court is around 2.60 lakh and old cases over the age of two years are 1.70 lakh.

In the same period, the number of pending cases in the subordinate courts is around 11.8 lakh. This means on an average every thirteenth person of Punjab and Haryana is affected by litigation.

Plaintiffs in most European courts must also pay the legal costs for the defendant if they lose the case. This ‘loser pays costs system’, which is in vogue in nearly every common law jurisdiction outside the US, cuts down on many cases without merit by forcing a claimant to hesitate before filing a questionable lawsuit. But the litigation cost in terms of court fee and award of costs is very low in India and this is the main reason for frivolous litigation.

The advocate fee and other costs have increased many times in the last 50 years, but the court fee is hardly realistic to generate more revenue for creating infrastructure and appointing more judges to strengthen the legal system. There was a time in India when in all civil proceedings costs were invariably awarded or reasons for not awarding costs were given. But nowadays costs are rarely awarded.

The inadequate judge strength, low court fee and not awarding costs against the loser resulting in frivolous litigation are three major causes of delay in the disposal of cases. Owing to the shortage of judges, even if judges work beyond their normal capacity, the arrears are bound to increase. The total number of judges is not adequate to clear the backlog of cases. It is not possible even to dispose of the actual fresh institution.

Clearly, the backlog cannot be cleared without additional strength. To tackle the problem of backlog within a timeframe, we need to allocate additional funds for employing additional judges. Later, as the backlog comes down, these judges would be crucial in keeping the fast pace of the judicial system.

The Tribune, May 20, 2007, Chandigarh, India The writer, Advocate, Supreme Court, is based at Chandigarh

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: