Justice For The Republic
In 1987 the Law Commission, concerned at India’s abysmally low ratio of judges for its population – then less than 11 per million people against developed countries’ norm of 100 – recommended increasing it to 50 immediately, and to 100 by the year 2000. A quarter-century later, India still languishes at only 13 judges per million people.
It should thus surprise no one that well over 30 million cases are pending at all levels of the judiciary, about three million of them for over a decade. Of course, there are other shortcomings that contribute to this logjam, but the sheer arithmetic of too few judges trying too many cases is at the heart of the problem.
The gradual gumming up of the judicial system has now created an appalling situation where even heinous criminal cases like rape and murder are stuck for years. The growing anger this has caused may have reached a tipping point with the vicious gang rape in Delhi a few weeks ago, which led to the hasty establishment of five new fast-track courts there. Subsequently, the law ministry has approved the recruitment of 2,000 new judges for fast-track courts throughout the country.
Though some are sceptical, fast-track courts can indeed make a difference. There are several examples from across the country. For instance, one such court in Sambalpur, Orissa, has twice convicted and awarded death sentences to men for raping and murdering minors, in trials lasting three months instead of years.
The irony is that until now, the government itself had been less than enthusiastic about fast-track courts, though they have disposed of 85% of the cases assigned to them since their creation in 2001. Despite such success, the central government started withdrawing the funding for these courts after their initial terms, until the Supreme Court objected and they were allowed to continue. But in the process, less than 1,200 of the original 1,700 remain in existence, a far cry from the five that were to be established in every district of India.
Some states have continued operating fast-track courts on their own even after central funds dried up, but many haven’t. Costs, of course, are the main hurdle. The just announced recruitment of 2,000 judges for fast-track courts at a cost of Rs 80 crore seems relatively little, but the total cost of operating a court has been estimated at five to 10 times the salaries of the associated judges. Accounting for that, and the higher salaries of judges at the high courts and Supreme Court, it could require an additional Rs 32,000 crore per year for India to reach a respectable level of 50 judges per million people.
Compare that to the following: Rs 60,000 crore for the farm loans waiver in 2008, and Rs 33,000 crore for MNREGA, Rs 44,000 crore for the petroleum subsidy and Rs 75,000 crore for the food subsidy last year. Although assuring justice to voters should seem as important an aim as any of those others, the reality is that it has not been viewed as such by successive governments, and it is unlikely even now that an additional Rs 32,000 crore per year will be sanctioned for the judicial system.
The other systemic shortcomings that compound the shortage of judges include a similarly low police to population ratio (not to mention obsolete policing practices which have long needed reforming); the self-appointing collegium system for inducting new judges at the higher levels, which has resulted in hundreds of vacancies; and the practice of judges granting endless adjournments, though the Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) limits it to three for any party to a case.
Judicial redress is the last resort of the harassed citizen; for ‘the system’ to improve, we must first ensure that justice is both assured and quick. The just released Justice Verma committee report, while recommending several changes in law, has stressed that the real problem is implementation. It also blames poor governance and reiterates that “speedy justice is not merely an aspect of the right to life with dignity, but is essential for efficacy of the law”.
Why fast-track courts are necessary for judges to simply follow the CPC and limit the number of adjournments to three is something only judges can answer. But fast-track courts, while not a cureall panacea for all the system’s ills, are clearly a big part of the solution. Their established track record and anecdotal success stories should give us confidence that they can make a huge difference.
Improving the entire justice system calls for significant political will and funds, which will be a challenge despite today’s tipping point. But while it would be ideal to somehow make all courts work like fast-track courts, and increase the judge to population ratio to at least 50 per million, it would nevertheless be immensely desirable to make even a few changes that attack the roots of the problem.
Two of the deepest and most cancerous of such roots are the criminalisation of politics and widespread crimes against women. For a small fraction of the funds required to set right the entire judicial system, an adequate number of fast-track courts could be established, dedicated to deal with criminal cases against elected representatives and attacks on women. Tackling these two ills will yield disproportionate benefits to the overall system and set in motion a virtuous cycle of reforms.