The Mahatma’s assassination in January 1948 is to be exhumed 69 years later, so to say. The Supreme Court has decided that it will see a PIL petitioner’s evidence that one of the four killer bullets striking Gandhi was not fired by Nathuram Godse, one of the two whom Punjab High Court sentenced to death on 8 November 1949 and hanged seven days later. Such is our apex court’s magnificent dedication to “truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth” in delivering justice to each petitioner, and never mind adding to the country’s Everest of pending court cases.
Take a look at that mountain. According to figures of the Law Ministry, the Supreme Court had 62,791 pending cases at the end of 2014. The figures went down to 59,272 in December 2015. But by the end of 2016, the pendency rose to 62,537. According to the latest data provided by the SC, as on 17 July 2017, the pending cases were pegged at 58,438. These include 48,772 civil and 9,666 criminal cases. Similar is the case with the country’s 24 High Courts, where, at the end of 2016, pending cases numbered 40.15 lakh. In the subordinate courts—considered the backbone of the country’s justice delivery system—the pending cases stood at 2.74 crore.
Like any other cause and effect issue, this pendency is against the interests of those seeking justice within a reasonable time period: (i) Our High Courts have a shortage of 413 judges as on 1 September, against the approved strength of 1,079; while (ii) the lower courts, with an approved strength of nearly 20,000 judicial officers, is 4,937 short of that number.
What about the unique Fast Track Courts (FTC) scheme conceived and started towards the end of the previous NDA government of A.B. Vajpayee? With a first-ever, albeit small, outright grant (Rs 502.90 crore) from the Eleventh Finance Commission, the Centre aimed at a total of 1,734 such courts in five years under a wholly Centrally-funded scheme. Fast track courts were to take up, on priority basis, sessions and other cases involving those under trial, the majority of them being in jail for petty or minor offences, not warranting prolonged imprisonment, but many of whom were locked up without trial. Judges were to be retired sessions/additional sessions judges, judges promoted on ad hoc basis and posted in these courts, or from among members of the Bar. The selection of the judges was left to the High Courts. Their exclusive work consisted of discharging the “undertrials” quickly and thereby relieving our over-crowded jails as well as resulting in a huge saving in jail expenditure. The state governments were then spending an aggregate of Rs.361 crore annually on the 1.80 lakh “undertrials”.
The Fast Track Courts were the first implemented and successful solution to the problem. Out of 36 lakh cases that were transferred to the FTCs, close to 30.7 lakh were reportedly disposed of. Imagine the miracle that would have occurred if the originally approved number of 1,734 FTCs had been set up and kept functioning till date.
In 2011, the UPA cut off funding and made it the state’s responsibility to fund the fast track corts out of their own budgets. Since then, 60% of FTCs have shut down, with their current number being 473, although the programme required only 0.1% of the state budget, and although FTCs could slash the number of pending court cases while simultaneously stopping overcrowding of jails and saving the states’ expenses on the prisoners’ upkeep.
Unfortunately, in 2011, the UPA cut off funding and made it the state’s responsibility to fund the FTCs out of their own budgets. Since then, 60% of these courts have shut down, with their current number being 473, although the programme required only 0.1% of the state budget, and although FTCs could slash the number of pending court cases while simultaneously stopping overcrowding of jails and saving the states’ expenses on the prisoners’ upkeep. And to think that the likes of Mamata Banerjee often talk about ours being a federal democracy.
All these statistics represent a massive human rights violation of this nation’s population. But where are the snooty, haughty activists and Lutyens “liberals” when it comes to pending court cases?
What then should be done to solve this? Limitation of space permits only bullet-point suggestions.
(i) Revive the FTC scheme (of an average of five fast track courts in each district) conceived by the Vajpayee government and turn it into a mission. Effect a Parliamentary law for it and compel the Finance Commission to make its devolution of resources to the states to be used compulsorily for the purpose till pending court cases are reduced to double digits, even as the construction of new courts for the purpose is left to the infrastructural expenditure of the Central government on land made available by the states.
(ii) Have many more judges at all levels on a contract basis. For the long-term, initiate an Indian Judicial Service like the IAS, IFS and the Indian Revenue Service.
(iii) Create many more courts at all levels. The goal should be a court at a maximum distance of 5 to10 kilometres from residential areas. Simultaneously, make a Constitutional amendment of Article 130 to ensure that, unlike today, there is a Supreme Court Bench at five metropolitan cities (other than New Delhi) to reduce congestion in the capital city, while reducing the travel pains of litigants from other towns.
(iv) Reduce the number of levels of a trial and drastically reduce the number of adjournments granted.
(v) Amend the Indian Penal Code to scrap its colonial features, and all other laws such as the Debt Recovery Act of 1993, which have failed to achieve their objectives.
(vi) Revise the Criminal Procedure Code and Civil Procedure Code so as to make all court procedures into one document and thereby facilitate the litigants and the judicial administration.
(vii) Periodically revise fines imposed for offences against the prevalent law in order to make violations more expensive and simultaneously enhance revenues of the judiciary. Similarly, start levying an adjournment fee, raising it for every subsequent adjournment.
(viii) Like with several senior positions in the Indian government’s bureaucracy, a newly promoted Chief Justice of India must be given a five-year fixed tenure so that he/she can introduce incremental reforms in the justice system in a sustained manner.
(ix) Make frivolous litigation vanish by imposing a minimum fine of Rs 100,000 on the litigant and his/her lawyer.
(x) Have special courts for all elected representatives of public institutions so as to quickly punish their criminality, which otherwise remain hanging long only on allegations.
(xi) Parliament must carry out unambiguous reforms as may be suggested by an expert committee headed by someone like former Chief Justice of India, H.L. Dattu (28.10.2014 to 2.12,2015), who warned, while in office, that “the increasing number of frivolous or premature cases is a disease that plagues all Indian courts including the Supreme Court.”
Much more importantly, it was he, in December 2014, who described the huge pendency of cases as a matter that “strikes at the very root of democracy and erodes respect for law among citizens who are at the receiving end of unjust treatment. This is where judiciary has to stand as a strong pillar. If this pillar develops cracks the entire nation will feel its ripples.”