The court is still in session

In 1984, Saeed Mirza made a movie called Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho about an elderly gentleman who spends many years and all his savings in a court battle against a better-funded, better-connected landlord. Look into India’s database and, 31 years later, you may find Mohan Joshi's case still going on. Recent Bollywood movies about the courts blithely ignore the one thing that progress has not changed: judicial delay.

In the ordinariness of courtrooms, there seems to be only the drama of patience. Litigants wait for months or years to be heard. Alleged criminals spend more time awaiting trial than their crimes would mandate, unscrupulous participants leverage a system designed to be fair and transparent to delay their cases and defer punishment. People with little or no means have to spend lifetimes and small fortunes to see their legal battles through in court. The courtroom as maidan-e-jung is a relevant metaphor, but in real life, it is an ultra slow motion battlefield.

Statistics show that there is a staggering number of cases being heard across the judiciary, and it is now cliché that justice, in being delayed, is denied. Even Article 21 of the Constitution has been read to include the right to a speedy trial, and quick justice is now considered indispensable. However, as a common aphorism goes, the course of justice often prevents it.

Why the delay?

The truly unfortunate issue of the problem is that nobody really knows why there is so much delay. Why does the legal process take so much time? Why does a petitioner need to appear in front of a judge for all of 10 seconds, only to be recalled a few months later?

There have been a number of informed, even scholarly initiatives, to identify the factors for delay. Most of them have been focussed studies using a small set of cases and data from the courts themselves.

Even the report by the 245th Law Commission states that there is no scientific data available to analyse the problem meaningfully.

This non-availability of a large enough set of data has hampered wide-ranging and meaningful analysis. As a response to the problem of lack of data, The Rule of Law Project at Daksh, an initiative that works with quantitative research to map the administration of justice in India, is putting together a database of all pending cases in a searchable, reportable online format. All the data is already available in the public domain, but Daksh is collating the data to make it easily accessible to interested parties who can use it to address and perhaps solve the problem.

Currently, our data for 10 High Courts includes 5,66,000 cases and 26,87,362 hearings. Each court has an average of 22,000 hearings a day. Every judge hears roughly 70 cases a day, which would be about 350 a week. This means that a judge gets about six minutes to hear each case.

On an average, it takes between 1,000 and 1,600 days for a case (in our database) to be disposed of — not court days but calendar days. That is roughly three to five years per case. However, for cases pending in the system, Daksh is unable to ascertain whether this trend will continue or whether the average figure will increase. And we are only beginning to collect the data.

From our database, we see that the oldest case in the system has been in the High Court of Jharkhand since January 1, 1958. At 57 years, this case appears to be nearly as long as the average life expectancy of an Indian. It has been around for so long that the High Court of Jharkhand, whose jurisdiction the case is currently under, was 32 years away from coming into existence when this case was filed in 1958. Of course, this may be an outlier case, but it is symptomatic of the deep malaise in the system.

Looking at ratios

One of the more worrying inferences from our recent work has been the ratio of case admissions to disposals. In some courts, nearly 2,000 new cases are admitted every day for every one case disposed. In the High Court of Gujarat, on a particularly challenging day, we saw 2,670 hearings, of which 1,827 were admissions of new cases. And that day, only two cases were resolved. Again, like the case from 1958, this may be an extreme example, but with an average Disposed-to-Admitted ratio of 1:50, we are most certainly not going to resolve the issue of pendency via small, incremental steps.

Need for a database

One of the secondary inferences that we have made is that an understanding of pendency and delay needs a coherent database that is standardised across the board. At the moment, each court is an island in the way it organises its information.

For example, take these simple questions: ‘What kinds of cases take three to five years to be disposed of?’ Or ‘Can public interest litigation be compared with company appeals?’ It is currently impossible to make this kind of analysis across courts. The types of cases across 24 High Courts are categorised in 2,553 different ways — which, if standardised, would be only 300 types of cases. A writ petition (which characterises cases dealing with citizen grievances with the state) is labelled in 120 different ways. Only if this information is standardised will we be able to meaningfully speak about the average number of days a particular type of case takes in court.

Judicial delay is not a problem solely for the state or for the judiciary. What matters is that cases be heard and dealt with in a timely manner, for the sake of the litigant. The issue needs to be discussed in the public sphere and not just as an administrative issue. So far, the litigant has mostly been excluded from the analysis.

What we hope is that our database will assist a wide-ranging analysis of the problem of pendency, and that this can include the social, political and economic fallouts of delayed justice. Judicial reform can be more effective if it is methodical and does not rely on random, on-the-fly solutions.

(Kishore Mandyam is co-founder and Kavya Murthy is a researcher at Daksh.)

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2020 12:00:10 AM |

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