Judicial Pendency/Backlogs in India – Causes, Impact and Way Forward

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The Indian judiciary has a host of problems acting as hurdles in the speedy delivery of justice. Pendency of cases is one such problem that has been ailing the judiciary for a long time. In the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem has increased three-fold. Recently, the Supreme Court of India observed that the pendency of cases “has gone out of control”, and said it will issue guidelines for the appointment of temporary judges to help address the backlog. This is not only the situation during the pandemic rather the backlog of pending cases in India has become a burning problem for a long time which denies the people the right to access timely justice. This impacts not just the administration of justice, but it has tremendous consequences for the economy and the functioning of businesses across India as well.

Judicial-Pendency.Backlogs-in-India mindmap

Data

  • The pendency of cases across courts in India has increased in the last decade.
  • According to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), a government platform monitoring judicial data, the backlog of cases in district courts saw a sharp increase of 18.2 per cent between December 31, 2019, and December 31, 2020.
  • In the previous year, 2018-2019, the increase was 7.79 per cent and in 2017-2018 it increased 11.6 per cent.
  • In the 25 High Courts across the country, the pendency of cases in 2019-2020 increased by 20.4 per cent. In the previous year, in 2018-2019, it increased only 5.29 per cent.
  • In the Supreme Court, pendency rose 10.35 per cent — from 60,469 cases on March 1, 2020, to 66,727 on March 1, 2021. The increase is the highest at least since 2013. In absolute terms, a backlog of 66,727 cases is the highest that the top court has ever had.
  • As of April 2018, over three crore cases are pending across the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the subordinate courts (including district courts).
  • Of these, the subordinate courts account for over 86% pendency of cases, followed by 13.8% pendency before the 24 High Courts. The remaining 0.2% of cases were pending with the Supreme Court.
  • Between 2006 and 2018 (up to April), there has been an 8.6% rise in the pendency of cases across all courts. Pendency before the Supreme Court increased by 36%, High Courts by 17%, and subordinate courts by 7%.
  • Although in the previous years, the annual backlog increase was significantly lower in the SC, between March 1, 2019, and March 1, 2020, the backlog saw an increase of 4.6 per cent while the backlog between March 1, 2018, and March 1, 2019, increased by 3.9 per cent.
  • As of 2020, the number of judges per million population in India was 20.91 while the figure stood at 19.78 for 2018, 17.48 for 2014 and 14.7 for 2002.
  • Overall, vacancies have increased across all courts from 23% in 2006 to 35% in 2018 (up to April).  In the Supreme Court, it has increased from 8% to 23%; in the High Courts from 16% to 38%; and in the subordinate courts from 19% to 26%.
  • The performance of courts across the country varies hugely, both in terms of geography as well as the level of the judiciary. Nearly 87.5% of all pending cases in India come from our lower courts which are the district and subordinate courts.
  • The Allahabad High Court has the maximum pendency given the large population it serves.
  • An increase in the pendency of cases for long periods over the years has increased the number of undertrials in prisons (accused prisoners awaiting trial). As of 2015, there were over four lakh prisoners in jails.  Of these, two-thirds were undertrials (2.8 lakh) and the remaining one-third were convicts.

Causes

  • Capacity constraints – There is a severe shortage of courtrooms, secretarial and support staffs and accommodation for judges. There is also a shortage in the appointment of new judges.
  • Delay in case disposal – In India, it is noticed that there is a huge delay in the disposal of cases. This delay in disposal of cases can be attributed to many factors like the absence of an adequate number of judges, lack of a fixed time frame to dispose of cases and so on.
  • Lack of efficiency – This is another problem noticed quite often. The judges adjourn the cases too easily and freely. Also, the urgency of hearing appeals is often neglected.
  • Misuse of PILs – Some people use PILs for irrelevant purposes and many have made it a part of their profession. This leads to an increase in pending cases in the courts.
  • Strikes of lawyers – There has been an increase in the strikes by lawyers in the last few years. This leads to the delay in court processes and thus increases the cases pending in courts.
  • Imbalance in the number of cases filed and cases disposed of – There has been an increase in the number of cases filed whereas the number of disposed of cases remains low. The absence of ADR mechanisms, plea bargaining and Lok Adalats is a major issue. This leads to high pendency of cases in courts.
  • Misuse of appeal provision – Appeal provisions are made to satisfy the party or to check justice but litigants made it a means to earn more money from the parties. They appeal in every case decided by the lower court. That is why the number of pendency is increasing in the High Courts of the state.

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Impact

  • Increase in the number of undertrials – As the accused persons are held innocent until proven guilty, they are kept under trial till justice is served. This impacts the liberty of those who are under trial and also increases their number if justice is delayed.
  • Economic costs – High pendency of cases also has economic costs as they involve lost days and state of suspension of business. It also includes the high cost of legal fees which one has to pay till the cases continue.
  • Justice system held in disrepute – Delay in justice delivery also leads to the loss of the reputation of the judiciary. There is a mass feeling that court proceedings are time-consuming processes.
  • Lack of interest in a judicial career – Due to the disrepute that the judiciary has been gaining in the last few decades, the young generation has been showing a lack of interest in judicial careers.
  • Repetition of offences – Many accused persons who are on bail repeat crimes as the cases are under litigation. Similarly, it has been observed that the undertrials in prisons commit petty crimes repeatedly.
  • The disappearance of witnesses – As the cases take a long time to get disposed of, many witnesses disappear.
  • Wastage of limited resources – The delay and pendency in cases cause wastage of available resources. People lose their precious time, money and limited resources.

Suggestion

  • Practical guidelines should be framed to counter adjournments and the absenteeism of judges.
  • While allocating resources due importance should be given to control other factors such as court management, gaming behaviour(including absconding), special courts, etc.
  • More judges are needed to clear the backlog of cases. Additional judges should be employed to dispose of cases depending on pendency.
  • ADR(Alternative Dispute Resolution) mechanisms should be strengthened. The use of methods such as mediation or arbitration to resolve a dispute should be given importance to promote reconciliation, settlement or compromise without going for litigation.
  • The introduction of Fast Track Courts is another step to counter the pendency of cases. There is a need for every state of India to set up Fast Track Courts in districts so that the problem of litigation pendency can be solved.
  • The use of technology in courts and judicial proceedings can save time and thus can help in the fast disposal of cases. There is a need for using automation wherever necessary. The introduction of machines and the use of available institutions or markets to carry out mundane works performed by humans can prove to be helpful.
  • Judicial infrastructure should be improved. The number of courtrooms and subordinate staffs should be increased.
  • Vacations and strikes should be curtailed rationally. Excess of vacations and strikes also lead to the high pendency of cases.
  • Timelines should be set to dispose of cases and these should be strictly adhered to.

Steps taken

  • Establishment of Lok AdalatsLok Adalat is also known as the people’s court. It is present in every district. To achieve the objective enshrined in Article 39A of the Constitution of India, the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 was enacted. It aims to provide free legal aid to weaker sections of the society to ensure that justice is delivered to every person in the society irrespective of their economic condition. The process of Lok Adalat is not complex as the regular court has during the trial. This makes the trial fast and settles the dispute. The advantage of the Lok Adalat is that the parties directly interact with the judge which helps the judge in determining the case.
  • The Gram Nyayalayas Act 2008Gram Nyayalayas (court) is like a Mobile Courts. In the year 2009, the act came into force. Its purpose is to provide access to justice to people at their doorstep and to ensure justice to every person without social and economic barriers. These courts work in the village and resolve the dispute by way of a conciliation process. The gram nyayalayas are not bound with the rules of The Indian Evidence Act 1872, these work on the guidelines made by the High court and based on the principle of natural justice.
  • Introduction of the concept of plea bargaining – In the year 2005, a new chapter XXI A was inserted in the Criminal Procedure Code, 1973 on plea bargaining. Plea Bargaining means a pre-negotiation between the accused and the prosecution where the accused pleads guilty in exchange for certain concession by the prosecution. The main objective of plea bargaining is to reduce the time in the criminal trial and give the accused a lesser punishment. It helps in the fast disposal of cases.

Way forward

The Indian judicial system is a strong judicial system but due to some issues, it is facing challenges and becoming less effective. To make the judiciary compatible, a multi-pronged approach is needed. The cases need to be disposed of quickly by promoting ADRs, gram nyayalayas, fast track courts and Lok Adalats. The factors causing delay should be addressed to ensure the rights of people as justice delayed is justice denied.

Practise Question

  1. Write a note on judicial pendency in India and suggest measures to tackle the issue. (250 words)
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