The Pendency Conundrum
‘Law is the king of kings, far more powerful than they are. Nothing can be mightier than the law by whose aid as that of the highest monarch, the weak may prevail over the strong.’
- Brihadaranyak Upanishad
The above quote from the Upanishad is a testament to ancient India’s commitment to rule of law. While the ‘west’ was naively submitting itself to the dictum of the monarch by considering it as a holy dogma, the ancient Indian philosophy saw justice as that beyond political power. The ancient Indian thought considered law as the paramount means to secure justice. It advised the monarch (who back then was administrating the justice delivery system) to respect law as the dictum of the divine and test given set of facts on the touchstone of dharma to render justice. The judgment thus delivered was final and more often than not considered accurate.
Thousands of years later, we find our justice delivery system in shambles. Lack of adequate infrastructure, abysmal digitization, alarming vacancies in the bench, corruption, pendency of cases are some of the major problems that have been plaguing our justice delivery system. Among these the Problem of pendency has been a thorn in the flesh for the State.
One may attribute the problem to the infelicitous change that our laws and justice delivery system had forcefully undergone during the years of tyranny of the Sultanate, Mughal and colonial regimes. However, that may just be a part of the problem. The larger chunk of the problem lies elsewhere.
In the post constitutional era, India had adopted a three-tier justice delivery system akin to the previously extant colonial system consisting of the Lower Judiciary (District, Civil, Munsif Courts etc.) at the grassroot level, the Hon’ble High Courts at the state level and the Hon’ble Apex Court. Each of these tiers of our justice delivery system have their own set of problems. But one problem that has been a ticking like a time bomb is that of pendency in adjudication. The drop in litigation (in proportion to the population of our country), increase in kangaroo courts, increase in number of litigants taking recourse to alternate dispute resolution (ADR) mechanism are some of the telling signs that show erosion of faith of common man in judiciary. The three important organs of the Govt. viz., the legislature, judiciary and executive have done shockingly little to address and arrest the problem of pendency. While most of the efforts are often aimed at improving the situation of Higher Judiciary, the Lower Courts are ignored and are left crying for help.
The Lower judiciary in India consisting of the District, Sessions, Magistrate and Munsif Courts lack adequate physical as well as digital infrastructure and resources to inspire confidence and command respect among the people. However harsh it may sound; it is the truth. As a practicing Advocate, I have seen many courts that even lack storage facility to properly preserve case files. One can see thousands of case bundles strewed on the floor. Rampant vacancies in the bench and corruption are some other problems that have been plaguing lower judiciary. Yet, we find many people moving these courts for justice. For the downtrodden, weak, oppressed and violated, these courts operating at the grassroots are the first resort in their quest for justice. Inordinate Pendency and delay in adjudication is chief most of the challenges that threatens to weaken people’s faith in judiciary. For instance, the data from the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) shows that there are a little above 3.8 crore cases pending adjudication in various lower Courts across the Country. The district wise pendency data for a medium size state like Tamil Nadu shows that there are 1,67,730 cases pending adjudication in Chennai district, 85,628 in Coimbatore, 21,138 in Dharmapuri and 16,343 in Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu. The situation is worse in a large state like Uttar Pradesh. The current data shows that there are about 3,27,863 cases pending in Prayagraj district, while 1,12,640 cases are pending in Ballia District and 3,40,345 cases are pending in Gorakhpur District. The situation is alarming.
It is essential in the modern society that judiciary is 100 years ahead in terms of infrastructure, functioning, collective thinking, consistency, accuracy and speed. However, in India, the judiciary is lagging behind by at least 50 years. Successive Governments have been averse to modernise and structurally revamp judiciary. Any little attempt made is also resisted by the Courts. While, it is easy to blame judiciary, one cannot shut a blind eye to the fact that it is the least corrupt organ of the Govt. which still remains the last resort for the masses to seek justice. In the name of modernising and restructuring the judiciary, attempts have been made in the past to remote control judiciary. So, the judiciary is forced to administer and regulate itself. Be that as it may, the problem of pendency in the lower judiciary is one of the least discussed topics and it begs for solutions.
One effective way to stem future backlog and effectively dispose existing pending cases would be to put a cap on the number of adjournments a counsel can seek in a matter. The data from NJDG shows that delay in more than 45% is due to the adjournments. Another effective method would be to not list the cases before the Courts until all the legally mandatory procedures, processes like notices, summons etc. and pleadings like counter affidavit, written statements and rejoinders etc. are complete. Again, a specific time frame can be fixed to complete the process before a specifically dedicated senior administrative member of that Court. Failure to comply within the fixed time frame should result in automatic adjudication of the matter. Since District wise back log data is available, the districts with utmost pendency should be mapped, earmarked and in such districts the number of courts at the lower level can be doubled. Supervision from the Higher judiciary on administration of justice in these districts with periodic review may prove to be effective.
Further, at the village level, ADR methods can be employed to prevent litigation. Since, India is still predominantly a rural country, Village level Dispute Resolution Officers can be appointed to resolve simple civil disputes and petty criminal disputes. The approach in adjudicating the petty matters must be to put an end to dispute rather than to stoke ego. A dedicated law on this subject is essential and the law commission with the help of the law schools across the country must study the pattern of litigation at the lowest level and look device methods to resolve the same. With my experience, I can safely say that petty disputes that could have been nipped in the bud have dragged on for years in the court of law on account of ego of the litigants.
Going into the future, employment of Artificial Intelligence in rendering judgments and appraising evidence must be explored. For this purpose, funding by the Government into R&D is imperative. Privatisation of Judiciary must also be explored. Outsourcing section work, record maintenance, upkeep of infrastructure and all other ancillary activities can be helpful in reducing the administrative burden of the Judges. This in return will lead to more productivity in their judicial work. Finally, streamlining the lower judiciary across the country by bringing uniformity in matters pertaining to functioning of Courts, recruitment, performance & promotions of judges and fixing accountability is essential and for this purpose Indian judicial service akin to administrative services can be introduced upto the district judiciary level. This would not only help in bringing uniformity, raising the standards of judges and weeding out corruption, but it would also help in better performance appraisal and fixing accountability of the lower court judges.
Our country is at crossroads, Now is the time for change. The status quo of yesterday must make way to the innovation of tomorrow. If the pendency conundrum is left unaddressed, there will be total breakdown of law in the near future.
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