Backlog stalls justice in India

File photo: British author Salman Rushdie.

File photo: British author Salman Rushdie.

Published Jan 21, 2013


New Delhi -

If you are embroiled in a court case in India, be prepared - you may die before the verdict.

The father of India-born author Salman Rushdie did. As did his opponent in the court battle over a New Delhi property. The case began in 1977 and the verdict came 35 years later, in 2012.

Lawyers say there are countless cases where litigants have died during the course of decades-long trials.

Often the accused have spent more years in prison, awaiting a verdict, than they would have received in jail terms if found guilty.

At the end of 2011, more than 32 million cases were pending in Indian courts, according to government data, and 26 percent of these were more than five years old.

“In the present set-up, it often takes 10, 20, 30 or even more years before a matter is finally decided,” said India's Law Commission in a 2009 report.

The outrage over the recent Delhi gang rape on a bus has led to much debate and many demands, among them a need to speed up India's justice delivery system.

“Can you imagine how traumatic it is for a victim of sexual abuse to appear before a court over and over again?” said Delhi-based human rights lawyer Vrinda Grover.

“I have a case of child sexual abuse ... It started when the child was four and a half. It's been 10 years of giving evidence at a trial court. There were appeals from both sides, and the slow pace of the appellate courts delayed the process further.”

“Trial courts take long, appellate courts take long, substantial investment is needed to change the entire system,” Grover said.

There are myriad reasons slowing down India's justice system - a shortage of judges, what one frustrated litigant describes as “a culture of adjournment,” and poor infrastructure.

India has an estimated 10.5 judges per 1 million people, according to the Law Ministry - compared with 159 per million in China and 107 per million in the United States. An estimated 25 percent of seats are vacant.

Supreme Court data shows trial courts began with a backlog of 27 million cases in 2011, admitted over 450 000 new cases, cleared 650 cases per judge, but ended the year with 26 million cases pending.

“The courts are overburdened. We need more courts, more judges, more allocations,” Grover said. The government has said it plans to increase the number by five times in five years.

With the Delhi gang rape case adding urgency, the Law Ministry recently approved the recruitment of 2 000 new judges in trial courts and a move to revive a scheme for holding fast-track trials. At least 3 670 of the already sanctioned posts are still vacant.

It is not just shortages, but the use of delays as a legal tactic that has slowed down the system, say lawyers and litigants.

“Lawyers and judges are to blame for the culture of adjournments. It has to be done away with,” said Neelam Krishnamurthy, who set up a victims' group that has been fighting a case for 16 years against the Ansal business group in connection with a fire at a Delhi cinema that killed 54 people, including her two teenage children.

“Adjournments are often requested by the defence to delay a verdict which may go against them, and lawyers of both sides and judges apparently collude,” Krishnamurthy alleged.

The trial court took a decade to give its verdict after the case was filed in 1997, after which it was heard in the Delhi High Court. Krishnamurthy's case is now before the Supreme Court, India's top court for appeal.

“I am still waiting for justice,” she said, charging that the judicial system favours the rich and powerful.

Several lawyers allege it requires money and influence to get cases listed. The victims, the Law Commission report said, are the litigant and often the accused.

According to the National Crimes Records Bureau, of the 372 926 inmates in prisons in 2011, 64.7 percent were undertrials and 1 486 of them had been in jail for over five years.

“Over recent years an attempt to computerise the processes has made a difference, but many attempts at streamlining procedures have not made much headway,” legal rights researcher Venkatesh Nayak said.

A Delhi high court judge estimated in 2008 that it would take 464 years to clear the arrears of the court.

Shoddy police investigations and poorly trained prosecutors further slow down the system, Grover said.

The Law Commission has suggested ways to speed up the system, including boosting the number of judges and courts, increasing the number of working days and grievance redress mechanisms to settle disputes.

“It is widely acknowledged that systemic changes and long term approaches are required to resolve the problems,” Grover said. “We don't expect changes overnight, but nor do we see any political will or commitment to change the system.”

The government's response to the Delhi gang rape case, Grover said, had been disappointing, but she added, “this is an opportunity to push for change.” - Sapa-dpa

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