Yes, the wheels of justice grind slowly, but should they move at such an excruciatingly sluggish pace? The sense of satisfaction that the law does catch up with the high and mighty, exemplified by the Supreme Court of India's conviction of former Kerala minister R. Balakrishna Pillai for graft in the Idamalayar dam corruption case, is severely tempered by the fact that justice was done two decades after the initiation of prosecution. While sentencing Mr. Pillai to one year of rigorous imprisonment, the Supreme Court itself drew attention to this indefensible delay by directing the special courts to dispose all corruption cases against public servants expeditiously. The two-member Bench held that High Courts, having a supervisory role over trial courts, are expected to monitor the progress of these cases and may “even call for a quarterly report from the court concerned for speedy disposal.”

The Supreme Court's observations closely follow Law Minister Veerappa Moily's promise to put in place, within the next three months, a system under which corruption cases are fast-tracked so that “no [such] case should exceed three years.” How this is going to be achieved is unclear considering that the law's built-in delays have been an intractable problem. However, it is commendable that the government has earmarked a sum of Rs.20,000 crore for developing judicial infrastructure, which needs overhauling particularly at the level of the lower courts. Most of the estimated three-crore-plus cases pending are in the lower courts, which under the E-courts project, need to be urgently computerised. Since more than two-thirds of pending cases involve the government, it is important that it quickly change from being a compulsive litigant to a responsible one. The National Litigation Policy unveiled last year, which aims at bringing about such a transformation in government attitude, must be implemented with a sense of mission. Any serious attempt to tackle a judicial backlog of such proportions will require coordinated action on multiple fronts. These include raising the judge-population ratio, which compares very poorly with that of other countries, to at least 50 per million as recommended by the Supreme Court in 2002. There is also a case for streamlining the time-consuming elements in the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes and improving the functioning of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. Speed and efficiency are vital not only to the credibility of any justice delivery system but also to the very well-being of any democratic society.

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