The Chief Justice of India told a judicial conference that the perception regarding pendency of cases in Indian courts as being reflective of the “inability of the Indian judiciary to cope with the caseload is an overstatement and an uncharitable analysis", adding though that people in the country know that “when things go wrong, the judiciary will stand by them". The latest data point to crores of cases pending across the various tiers of the Indian judicial system, and it is universally recognised that there is an urgent need to resolve the backlog. Here’s what you need to know.
How Many Cases Pending?
Delivering the keynote address at the India-Singapore Mediation Summit, CJI NV Ramana cited the “often-quoted statistic that pendency in Indian courts has reached 45 (4.5 crore) million cases". A few months back in April, reports said that combined with Covid-19-induced lockdowns and restrictions, the pendency across all courts in India had crossed 4.4 crore cases, rising by at least 19 per cent since March last year.
According to reports that cited data from the National Judicial Data Grid and the Supreme Court, at present there are 3.9 crore cases pending in the district and subordinate courts, 58.5 lakh cases in the various high courts, and more than 69,000 cases in the Supreme Court.
Former Supreme Court judge Justice (retd) Markandey Katju had said in an article in The Tribune in 2019 that “it is estimated that if no fresh case is filed, it will take about 360 years to clear the backlog" of cases in all the India courts. He was writing at a time when the total pendency stood at about 3.3 crore cases.
What Are The Main Reasons?
In his address on the topic, ‘Making Mediation Mainstream: Reflections from India and Singapore’, CJI Ramana said among the several factors that contribute to delays in courts is “an Indian phenomenon called ‘luxurious litigation'".
The CJI said “it is a specific type of litigation wherein parties with resources attempt to frustrate the judicial process and delay it by filing numerous proceedings across the judicial system", adding that “undeniably, the prevailing pandemic has also contributed to our woes".
Another factor that is often blamed for delays is the existence of vacancies across the judicial system. Reports suggest that there are more than 400 judges’ positions vacant across the 25 high courts, while the lower judiciary has posts of 5,000 judges lying empty. The apex court too has four vacancies. A Department pof Justice statement said that as on April 1, 2021, there were also five posts of judges in the apex court that were lying vacant.
Jurists have also pointed to inadequate infrastructure in subordinate courts as a big factor that is driving delays. “Courts in the country do not have basic facilities for litigants. Most subordinate courts lack basic infrastructure for judges, court staffs, and litigants," the then CJI Dipak Misra had said in 2018.
Another factor blamed for delays is the “culture of seeking adjournments". President Ram Nath Kovind had said in 2018 that “there is a culture of seeking adjournments as a norm rather than an exception", while also noting that “new thinking is gradually taking place on frequent adjournments. The judiciary is making sincere efforts to curb this practice".
What Are The Strategies Suggested To Clear The Backlog?
“Justice delayed is justice denied" is a common aphorism that is often cited while talking about the pendency of cases and jurists note that achievement of some of the fundamental aims of the Indian Constitution is frustrated by the mounting backlog of cases.
In its reply to a question on steps taken to reduce delays in the justice delivery mechanism, the Union Justice Ministry had said that the Centre was “committed to speedy disposal of cases and reduction in pendency of cases", adding that the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms — whose setting up had been apporved by the Union Cabinet in 2011 — has adopted “many strategic initiatives" towards that end.
Listing out the steps taken, the Law Ministry said that as far as improving infrastructure at district and subordinate courts was concerned, the number of court halls had gone up by more than 3,800 from close to 16,000 in 2014 to more than 19,500 in 2020.
Another significant move has been in the direction of adopting digital solutions to aid in the disposal of cases. The Centre said that it has been implementing the e-Courts Mission Mode Project across the country and the number of computerised district and subordinate courts had increased from 13,672 to 16,845 between 2014 and 2020.
The Law Ministry also said that ‘Arrears Committees’ have been set up in the High Courts to “clear cases pending for more than five years". Arrears committees have been set up under district judges as well and they have been “constituted in the Supreme Court to formulate steps to reduce pendency of cases in High Courts and district courts".
A key stress from jurists has been on the development of a robust alternate dispute resolution mechanism. Justice (retd) Katju notes that faced with a rising backlog, authorities in the US “took radical action by creating a system of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms — arbitration, mediation, conciliation, etc.". He added that “every court has attached to it arbitration and mediation centres and often civil and minor criminal disputes are resolved there".
The Centre also said that amendment to the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, was effected in 2015 for “expediting the speedy resolution of disputes by prescribing timelines".