Slack functioning of trial courts is not the only reason for delays in disposal of cases

The lengthy delay in the disposal of a bride burning case before a trial court in Punjab has provoked a Division Bench of the Supreme Court to express its “anguish, agony and concern” over the length of adjournments granted by the trial courts in the country. The Supreme Court having stepped in to curb the tendency of trial courts to liberally grant adjournments has evoked several responses, primarily highlighting how delays in the disposal of cases are attributable to the slack functioning of the trial courts.

Between 2010 and 2012, an intensive research study examining the functioning of lower courts was carried out in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. In-depth qualitative interviews with district and taluka court judges, lawyers and litigants in this study reveal that while all the respondents agreed that ‘delays’ were a primary hurdle to accessing the judiciary, a closer inspection revealed that the adjournments were related to issues that are not only systemic but also a result of external factors that are intermingled with the working of the judiciary. Based on the empirical evidence from Maharashtra, a few observations can be drawn.

Highlighted as a major cause of delays, particularly in matrimonial disputes, the lady litigant is often unable to appear in court because of various social and economic constraints, according to lawyers and judges in the trial court.

Commuting to the taluka courts is often a challenge for litigants in talukas where villages are spread out. Several litigants in Maharashtra related how public transport in most rural areas was scarce or irregular, making it very difficult for litigants to reach the court in time. Litigants spend a great deal of time, energy and money in commuting back and forth from the court only to be able to comply with lengthy procedural requirements in the early stages of the case. Consequently, by the time the case reaches the crucial stage of recording evidence, most litigants are tired and have exhausted their financial resources to pursue the case with diligence any further.

Land-related cases, which comprise the majority of the litigation in taluka courts, face severe delays. Litigants attribute this not to the working of the courts but to the conduct of the supporting machinery —local revenue officials, lawyers and policemen.

Litigants speak of encountering corruption and overburdened local officials juggling tasks pertaining to various departments. For instance, the tehsildar, who must handle local revenue department matters, ensures the execution of partition decrees and also acts as the protection officer under the Domestic Violence Act.

As a combined consequence of irregular/scarce public transport, a corruption-ridden supporting machinery, work overload and laxity, delay occurs at the very first stage of the case — during service of summons. Researchers found that litigants had, on several occasions, come to the taluka court only to be met with another adjournment because “summons had not yet been served on the opposite party”. Notes from an interview with a lawyer in a small taluka reveal that acknowledgment of receipt for notices served through R.P.A.D. (Registered Post Acknowledgement Due) to persons residing outside the taluka headquarters takes 6 to 7 months.

Another lawyer said that where notices are served through police stations, acknowledgments are not received at all.

In Maharashtra, the eligibility criterion that candidates applying for the post of a judge must have a mandated number of years of practice as a lawyer, has been relaxed.

Senior lawyers and judges suggest that this has placed the entire system of the trial court under threat —several young judges now over-viewing cases are fresh law-graduates with no experience in the practical working of the judiciary.

A lawyer in a busy district court in Maharashtra clarifies: “Many times, the lawyers have far more experience and knowledge than the judge, who is often a fresh graduate.

The situation then becomes tricky because the person in the deciding position is the one who lacks skill, experience and knowledge.” Lacking the confidence, foresight and acumen to decide complex civil or criminal cases, young judges consequently tend to use every opportunity to adjourn the matter.

On the other hand, there still are judges in lower courts who have developed unique strategies to go beyond just “deciding cases” and are delivering justice.

These preliminary findings suggests that along with using the danda in the form of strict directions to the lower courts and reducing the disparity between the small number of judges and large quantum of cases, the judicial system needs to consider a creative overhaul in its structure and look outward towards making the justice delivery system more accessible.

(The authors were researchers on the this study titled “The Pursuit of Economic and Social Rights in India’s Lower Judiciary” conducted by the National Centre for Advocacy Studies (Maharashtra), the Centre for Social Justice (Gujarat) and Jagori Grameen)

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