Crying need for judicial reforms in India

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By D.M.Deshpande

All the four alleged rapists have been killed by the police in an ‘encounter’ in Hyderabad. At the ground level, this has been widely welcomed by the citizens who are essentially craving for speedy justice. There are a few critics, probably just a few who think that this actually tantamount to miscarriage of justice. In a real democracy, police is the executive arm vested with the authority and responsibility of investigation of crimes and offences. And the courts, the judiciary is expected to dispense justice as quickly as possible. Hence the adage, justice delayed is justice denied. Shoddy investigations and inordinate court delays have resulted in an unfortunate situation where a large majority of citizens have lost faith in judicial system. They look forward for quick fix solutions and ‘encounters’, mob lynching and the like provide just that.

Criminal justice system is broken; in fact, the entire judicial system needs an urgent overhaul, revamping and reimagining.  It is hurting investment and economic growth. Take the latest case of re-instatement of Cyrus Mistry by NCLAT; even a specialized court taking three years to give it’s verdict. It is still not the final word as it can be appealed in higher courts! While the legal aspects of the case are important judges ought to keep in mind the economic value of the cases they preside over. Delay in deciding Essar Steel case meant investment of Rs.50,000 Crores was stalled for a long time.

India has already earned a nefarious distinction; it is lax in honouring and enforcing contracts. We have the largest numbers of cases pending in various courts-3.5 crores and growing at the rate of 9.7% every year. The highest court- the Supreme Court-is no exception; it has close to 60,000 cases pending.  Inordinate delays have resulted in several litigants deserting their cases mid way. Almost no one rich or resourceful has ever been convicted and sentenced in his/her lifetime. It is only the poor and those with no/less social power who get punished.

India has one of the highest numbers of undertrials in the world; 4.2lakh prisoners-around two-third of the total- await their turn for trial and conclusion in their respective courts. They continue to languish in jails not because they have been pronounced guilty but because they have either committed such heinous crime that they can’t be let out on bail or they are simply so poor or disempowered that they have resigned to their fate in jails! A massive 70% of the prisoners are illiterate and more than half-53%- belong to Muslim and Dalit community.

This year’s Economic Survey has also called for speedy resolution of cases. Without mincing words, the survey points out that judicial delays are hurting businesses and investments. Appointments of additional 2,279 judges in lower courts, 93 in high courts and just one in Supreme court would suffice to clear all pending cases. But no, we are not willing to listen and do what needs to be done in our own interests. The state of U.P has the highest pending rape cases, over 25,000 and 42,000 cases of offense against children. The state did promise to establish 218 fast track courts. But is it serious? No, not by looking at the data released by Ministry of Law and Justice- the Allahabad High court has the highest numbers of vacancies of judges in the country!   

The Government at the centre is keen on making life easy for people. It is also intent on improving the ease with which business can be started and improved in India. It has also set a target of making India a 5 trillion dollar economy by 2024. Will this be possible without undertaking judicial reforms? There is an urgent need not just to increase the State capacity, in terms of numbers of courts and judges- but also bring about qualitative improvements. There is hardly any use of modern technology in the functioning of our courts; application of tools such as AI (Artificial Intelligence) is a far cry. Procedural and administrative issues need a hard look; very often, they, not the lack of judges, have come in the way of rendering speedy

justice.

Creation of an Indian Judicial Service has been suggested long back. It can potentially create a large pool of trained and talented judges and other functionaries. This is needed for a large, diverse country such as ours. Without a functional judicial system, reliance on ‘encounters’, vigilante groups will only increase. This is not the future we seek in the world’s biggest

democracy.

The author has four decades of experience in higher education teaching and research. He is the former first vice chancellor of ISBM University, Chhattisgarh.