When he took over as the 43rd Chief Justice of India in December last year, Justice TS Thakur had said that ‘2016 will be the year for clearing arrears’ — thereby identifying the huge backlog of pending cases as one of the key areas the Supreme Court will focus upon. The problem is gargantuan and of serious import, as shown again by recent data. As on December 31 last, over two crore cases are pending in the country’s lower courts. The exact number is 2,00,60,998, as cited in the tiol Judicial Data Grid, a public access portal launched by the Supreme Court. Of these, 41.38 percent cases are pending for less than two years, while 10.83 percent cases are pending for over 10 years. The Department of Justice has therefore posed the question as to when should a case be deemed delayed. Pointing out that policymakers are yet to frame any criteria or set any benchmark about this aspect, the department has asked in a note: ‘If a case is not disposed of within a year of it being instituted, will it be considered to be delayed?’ On the other hand, Chief Justice TS Thakur has spoken about the need for cases to have a gestation period before they are ready to be heard — that defining the gestation period would ‘reduce arrears’. Legal experts have welcomed this suggestion, pointing out that if parties have fulfilled all requirements before the case goes on trial, it would go some way to help courts ensure that cases do not remain pending due to the court’s fault in the first place. But even if such measures are adopted, will these make a significant dent in reducing court backlogs? The NJDG portal does not cover all courts across the country, so the Department of Justice periodically collects data on pendency of cases from the 24 High Courts and the Supreme Court. If all the courts of the land are considered, the number of pending cases is estimated to be more than 3 crore.
Law Minister DV Sadanda Gowda informed Parliament last year that as on December 1, 2015, there were 58,906 cases pending in the Supreme Court, while 41.53 lakh cases were pending in the High Courts as on December 31, 2014. There has not been much change in these numbers over the past 3-4 years, and the debate has been raging about how the country’s judicial system is sinking under the burden of pending cases. In a sharply worded critique, former Press Council chairman and Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju has written about hearing cases 50-60 years after these were initiated. Katju has mentioned lawyers telling him that the situation is so bad that if a case is adjourned after the first date, it will never again be listed in court unless the interested litigant is resourceful enough to ensure it! And neither the government nor the legal fraternity seem interested in coming to grips with this unsustaible situation of ‘justice delayed, justice denied’. The recommendation of the Law Commission of 1987 to have 50 judges for every 10 lakh people in the country still remains on paper despite steep increase in number and variety of litigation. The Law Ministry revealed in August last of High Courts having a shortfall of 384 judges; as for subordite courts, the number of vacancies is over 4,000 as pointed out by the Supreme Court. Even increasing the number of judges or creating additiol courts and benches may not effectively reduce pendency. There have been informed suggestions to scrap outdated laws and cumbrous legal procedures, improve and speed up trial prosecution, set limits to the number of appeals and courts an accused can make and approach, remove minor cases like traffic and police challans clogging up lower courts and introduce processes like plea bargaining to free valuable court time. Unless such reforms are set in motion soon, the country will be staring at judicial paralysis. This is not something that can be put off indefinitely.