"Access to justice through empowerment of citizens is defining measure of a progressive nation"

The national outrage at the Delhi gang rape compels an urgent introspection of laws and the justice delivery system, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Sunday.

“We must not allow ourselves to be overcome by a sense of despair at some of the demonstrated inadequacies of our legal system,” he said inaugurating a joint conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices at Vigyan Bhawan here, being held after four years.

Chief Justice of India Altamas Kabir presided and Union Law Minister Ashwani Kumar addressed the meeting.

Unique opportunity

Dr. Singh said the conference was in many ways a unique opportunity for interaction between the judiciary and the executive at the highest level to find ways to move forward in a collective task and endeavour of towards building a strong justice delivery system. This was a task of vital national significance that deserved urgent attention. “Access to justice through empowerment of its citizens is the defining measure of a progressive nation and a just society. We must, therefore, collectively ensure that our laws deliver on the state’s duty to respect, protect and fulfil human rights and that the disadvantaged are not excluded from the processes that advance the cause of justice. At the same time, we need to ensure that the laws that govern the daily lives of our citizens are certain, stable and reasonable.”

The government had moved fast to respond to the felt sensitivities of people in the aftermath of the gruesome tragedy of Delhi. It had brought about significant amendments to the criminal law to effectively deal with heinous offences against women. However, a great deal more needed to be done as far as offences against women were concerned, he noted.

Pendency of cases

On the huge pendency of cases, he said: “I am conscious of the enormity of the task we face in reducing the backlog and increasing the pace at which trials take place. Presently, over three crore cases are pending and 26 per cent of them are over five-year-old.”

While the government had set up the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms in the Department of Justice to reduce the pendency of cases, the CJI had established the National Court Management Systems, which would develop a National Framework of Court Excellence. This framework would lay down time lines and measurable standards of performance for courts on the touchstone of quality. A Case Management System would also be developed to ensure user-friendly judicial processes.

Referring to the observations of the CJI on inadequate strength of judges to meet the mounting cases, Dr. Singh said: “I agree fully with the Chief Justice that we need to significantly enhance the number of judges to administer justice. The judge-to-population ratio at the current level of 15.5 judges per million population is indeed grossly inadequate. We need to alter this equation. However, the initiative must come from the State governments.”

The Prime Minister urged all Chief Ministers to extend their full support to this important initiative. The Centre would increase the quantum of funding to the States for the creation of infrastructure for the subordinate judiciary. “We will engage with the 14th Finance Commission for devolution of funds to the States, specifically for the judicial sector. In addition, we will request the Commission to earmark funds for establishing fast-track courts, not just in cases involving heinous crimes, but also those in which offences have been committed against the vulnerable people like the elderly, women and children.”

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