Government’s Latest Gimmicks On Right To Justice The Bitter Truth
Our government is now suffering from another disease, in the form of reiterating the rights already embodied in the Constitution, showcasing them in the form, as if it is doing a favour to the people with newer and unprecedented rights such as the Right to Employment Guarantee (with paying starvation-level wages, which is mostly siphoned off), Right to Education (with no schools, no class rooms and not even teachers), etc.
Now the latest attention-grabber is the Right to Justice Bill. If passing a law, without providing the wherewithal, had improved the country, it would already have become a heaven.
You cannot expect any improvement, because a law is being passed, without a will to improve the system and implement the law, lock stock and barrel. The Right to Justice, however, well intentioned it may be, is going to remain only a dream, as nobody is serious about ensuring the justice for the common man.
The President of India observed on May 31, 2010; “Government agencies being one of the biggest litigants must exercise restraint from routinely instituting litigation and clogging the system. We must take stock of the challenges and structural weaknesses, which beset our legal system, impeding equitable access to prompt and quality justice. Judicial reforms occupy a salient place in government’s agenda.
“There cannot be better governance without better laws and there cannot be better laws if antiquated ones remain. Archaic laws and outdated administrative regulations must be scrutinised and if necessary scrapped or amended. Making the language of law simple can prevent unnecessary litigation. We must re-engineer and simplify court procedures, which otherwise tend to make litigation unduly slow and protracted. Frequent demands and liberal grant of adjournments, filing of multiple suits and similar tactics make judicial productivity sluggish. Timely pronouncement of judgements and quick execution of decrees would be beneficial…. Congestion of court cases has been compounded by shortage of judicial manpower and low judge to population ratio. We must explore betterment of this ratio by augmenting the strength of the judiciary without compromising on quality.”
The government has admitted, more than once at the Prime Minister’s and Law Minister’s level, that the State is the biggest litigant. There are over three crore cases pending in Indian courts. Seventy per cent of them involve the government as either petitioners or respondents. Even in the words of the Prime Minister, 90 per cent of those cases fail and should not have been filed in the first instance. The present Law Minister in 2010 himself had said that there were several instances of frivolous cases being pursued by the government causing huge losses to the exchequer and burdening the judicial system. Giving an example he stated that matters relating to individual grievances such as service-related pleas, pensions and retirement benefits should not be appealed against. “Such appeals should be avoided as litigation costs in them are much higher than the payoffs,” he said. All the efforts of the government to become fair, just and responsible litigants have failed.
As of April 1, 2011, there were 288 vacancies across all high courts which have a collective backlog of 41.8 lakh cases. The apex court functions with 29 out of the sanctioned 31 judges. Three years ago, the then Chief Justice of India said that India needed 77,000 judges to clear its judicial backlog and called for increasing the population-judge ratio from the existing 9.5 to 10 lakh people to 50 per 10 lakh whereas we have only about 13,000 judges in position.
The most populous state in the country, Uttar Pradesh, has the highest sanctioned high court judge strength of 160 and the maximum number of vacancies at 95. With a population (199 million) that’s only one-third less than that of the United States of America—the third most populous country in the world—Uttar Pradesh has just 65 sitting judges. The Allahabad High Court, including its benches, is working with just 36 per cent of the sanctioned judge strength. This High Court also has the maximum number of pending cases at 9.6 lakh.
Maharashtra, India’s second most populous state with 112 million people, has a sanctioned strength of 75 judges but a vacancy of 14. The Bombay High Court and its benches have a collective backlog of 3.4 lakh cases.
Other high courts with a significant number of vacancies are that of Punjab & Haryana (26 out of the sanctioned 68), Rajasthan (19 out of the sanctioned 40—almost 50 per cent) and Calcutta (16 out of the sanctioned 58).
The Gujarat High Court is working with exactly two-third of its sanctioned strength of 42 judges, whereas in Rajasthan 14 of the 19 posts are yet to be filled. The Punjab & Haryana High Court is short of 24 additional judges though its sanctioned strength is 29. Here is a classic observation by the Supreme Court dated August, 2010, which speaks of the prevailing conditions in the country. Taking Uttar Pradesh as a test case, Solicitor General (SG) read out statistics reflecting poorly on the Allahabad High Court, which is administratively in charge of the subordinate judiciary.
According to him, 10,541 criminal trials were stayed by Allahabad HC. Of these, 9 per cent were pending for more than 20 years and 21per cent for over a decade. This means, stay of trial in 30 per cent of heinous offences continued for more than 10 years. The Supreme Court observed: “It’s sad that administration of justice has come to such a pass. The HCs stay the trial and forget all about it. This means, we are choking the administration of justice. No one should be denied a fair and speedy trial. But what about the victims? What about society which feels that a wrongdoer should be punished at the earliest. Through these stays, that is being denied.”
When the SG said that chief justices of HCs should play an active role in clearing the mess arising out of decade-old stay orders on criminal trials, the bench said, “The CJs are helpless. They have a tenure ranging from one year to even two months. What can a CJ do in such a brief tenure? They cannot deal with this problem as their brief tenures do not allow them to even understand the dynamics of a particular HC.”
Taking a dig at the government and law officers, it added: “Six months back, you (SG) and your colleagues had pioneered a programme for expeditious justice in the face of cores off cases pending in trial courts. But the entire system seems to have either crumbled or is crumbling. What else can be said when 9 per cent of cases have been stayed for more than 20 years?”
Unless you take the basic steps to reform the criminal justice, how the Right to Justice is going to help anybody? If there are no judges to decide, how will any case get disposed of ? The Government must remember that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.
By Joginder Singh
The writer is former Director, CBI