The Indian legal system measures up rather well if assessed by the yardsticks of fairness and independence. Where it fails — and by a long shot — is in terms of speed and efficiency, attributes that are vital for the health and credibility of any justice delivery system, and ipso facto, to any liberal democratic order. The observations made by the Supreme Court, while disposing of a land dispute case pending for a staggering 50 years, have focussed critical attention on the problem of judicial delay. The strong language used by the Division Bench — which said the “inordinate delay in the disposal of cases” has eroded faith in the judiciary and left the people “simply disgusted” — is a reflection of the anguish about a problem that is getting worse by the day. It is no secret that a major cause for this delay is understaffing. India has fewer than 15 judges per million people, a figure that compares very poorly with countries such as Canada (about 75 per million) and the United States (104 per million). In 2002, the Supreme Court had directed the Centre that the judge-population ratio be raised to 50 per million in a phased manner. Indefensibly, successive governments have not done enough to address this issue; in the Tenth plan, the judiciary was allocated a mere 0.078 per cent of the total expenditure, a small crumb more than the 0.071 per cent assigned in the Ninth.

There are of course a cluster of other reasons for the backlog of cases. These include inadequate physical infrastructure, the failure or inability to streamline procedures in the Civil and Criminal Procedure Codes, the tardiness in computerising courtrooms, and the inadequate effort that has gone into developing alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as the Lok Adalats, arbitration and mediation. The backlog problem is most acute at the level of the subordinate judiciary. In 2005, there were 2.78 crore cases pending in the lower courts and 33.79 lakh in the high courts and 30,000 in the Supreme Court — an accumulation that is not possible to clear without a huge spike in the rates of disposal. As former Chief Justice of India M.N. Venkatachaliah pointed out recently, the disillusionment with the judicial system has led to a dangerous increase in jan adalats or kangaroo courts in many parts of the country. It is time the county took a serious and comprehensive look at the entire legal system with special attention to tackling the problem of backlog. Too much time has gone by and too little has been done to sort out a problem that undermines the rights of litigants and accused, damages the credibility of the judiciary, and weakens the very basis of the democratic order.