The National Mission to improve the delivery of justice is at work.

In October 2009, on the basis of a Vision Document adopted at a judicial conference in New Delhi, the Government of India approved in principle a National Mission to reduce pendency and delays in the judicial system and enhance accountability through structural changes, higher performance standards and capacity-building. Many past attempts to achieve the goals did not yield results because of lack of institutional capacities, inadequate funding and want of a political will.

When it was realised that without judicial reform the development agenda cannot be carried forward, the 13th Finance Commission made specific recommendations for the grant of funds to improve justice delivery. The Union government announced a series of policy initiatives aimed at reducing pendency from an average of 15 years to three years — within a three year period. It was considered by many as too ambitious for a system used to chronic delays, outmoded procedures and indifferent management. With the money made available and strategies and plans worked out, the government has now come up with a National Mission to accomplish the goal within five years, coinciding with the period of the 12th Five Year Plan. This is a look at the Mission Goals, analysing the components of the Action Plan, examining the strategies proposed and evaluating the prospects, given the conditions on the ground and the constraints.

The catalyst

For a long time, the judiciary was outside the radar of the Planning Commission which distributed development grants. And when the Commission started providing funds, it turned out to be too meagre to make any capacity improvement. The State governments did not increase the number of courts required to handle the mounting number of cases, and the existing ones did not get the needed infrastructure. The judiciary is still to acquire information and communication technology (ICT) support systems to modernise processes, and continues to labour under the weight of over three crore pending cases.

Setting a condition that the government, the single largest litigant, frame a litigation policy aimed at reducing avoidable and unnecessary litigation, the Finance Commission recommended a grant of Rs. 5,000 crore to improve judicial outcomes through six strategic initiatives. These included increasing the number of court working hours, using the existing infrastructure but conducting proceedings in morning/evening hours under a shift system. Other measures involved increased use of Lok Adalats to ease pressure on courts, promotion of Alternative Dispute Resolution methods, training of judicial officers and public prosecutors to enhance capacities, addition of facilities in judicial academies, and the creation of posts of Court Managers in every judicial district to assist in administrative functions. The Central government issued a series of orders sanctioning funds and providing guidelines for the utilisation of the grants. The State governments have started issuing orders for utilisation.

Strategic initiatives

The Department of Justice, now headed by an independent Secretary-level officer under the Ministry of Law and Justice, has assumed the role of the Mission Directorate with the Secretary to Government as Mission Leader. Judicial reform is now as much a function of the government as it is of the judiciary. The Planning Commission has constituted a Working Group on Justice to prepare the demands of the justice system under the 12th Plan, and one can expect continued support, besides the Finance Commission allocations, for the Justice Department's Mission initiatives. The time is opportune for a breakthrough in the delivery of justice through the National Mission. The first step is to understand the implications of the Strategic Initiatives of the Action Plan and respond to the role and responsibilities envisaged under it. The Action Plan contemplates five strategic initiatives: policy changes, re-engineering procedures, human resource development, leveraging ICT and improving the infrastructure of the subordinate judiciary.

Among policy initiatives, the government has moved legislation proposing to increase High Court judges' retirement age and enhance judicial standards and accountability. National and State litigation policies are in the process of implementation as part of the National Mission. The All India Judicial Service is being taken up for Parliament's consideration. Improving the capacities of the judiciary proportionate to the workload is under way through judicial impact assessment as part of the legislative process. To improve human resources, legal education reforms are being considered.

Re-engineering of processes by removing bottlenecks and fast-tracking procedures constitute a major strategy to reduce delays. This may require amendments to statutes and rules; the Law Commission is being asked to work on it. Together with Lok Adalats, mediation, plea bargaining and negotiated settlements, a large part of pending cases is expected to be resolved. Clubbing similar kinds of cases, leaving administrative functions to Court Managers, introducing modern management tools and systems for docket and case management and so on, are other strategies mooted. In 2007, the e-courts project was initiated at a cost of Rs.440 crore (now revised to Rs.935 crore) to provide ICT infrastructure in district and subordinate courts and to computerise judicial records. This is scheduled for completion by 2014, enabling the National Arrears Grid to be operational for integration with the Mission Plan. With the introduction of e-courts, along with video-conferencing, e-filing and related ICT-enabled services, the justice delivery system can be transformed to become people-friendly, less expensive and expeditious.

The human resource component will still be critical, and as such the Mission proposes not only to fill up judicial vacancies but also strengthen training through judicial academies. Efforts to provide continuing education and training for lawyers and public prosecutors are under way with the involvement of Bar Councils and law schools. Many of the shortcomings in the institutions and procedures can be overcome if motivated, competent personnel are available in adequate numbers.

Another component of the Mission involves the development of infrastructure in district and subordinate courts. During the 12th Plan period, all the 15,000 courts are expected to have buildings and equipment for them to be able to operate with efficiency. For this, substantial funds are sought to be provided by the Union government on 75:25 sharing basis. States have been asked to develop the design of modern court complexes in every district and estimate fund requirements. Hopefully, the judicial architecture will soon see a decisive change in terms of efficiency and towards a litigant-friendly atmosphere. Gram Nyayalayas to help rural folk access inexpensive justice at their doorsteps is another step envisaged. Again, with police modernisation, forensic science development, criminal tracking network system and similar initiatives being implemented, it is hoped that criminal justice will soon have a human face.

Popular support

The plan is ready and the funds have been made available. Now what is needed is time-bound implementation in mission mode by the functionaries, and popular support to sustain the momentum. Unfortunately, even informed sections do not believe that pendency and arrears can be controlled given the prevailing mindset of those in charge of the systems, and the undue benefits the vested interests enjoy by keeping the systems as they are. The litigant public seems to be reconciled to their fate and the powerful among them are increasingly using extra-judicial methods to get their due.

Of course, this was the sentiment in the early-1990s about the economy as well. A decisive leadership took the risk and made the change possible, which the people welcomed in due course. Can such a thing happen in the judicial sector in the present context when the political will seems to be forthcoming and the funds have been provided? Let there be a campaign for judicial reform among the public to get the actors motivated by the leadership to take the Mission seriously for the cause of justice and development.

(Dr. Madhava Menon is a former Vice-Chancellor of the National Law Schools in Bangalore and Kolkata, and a member of the Advisory Council of National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms set up by the Government of India.)

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