All young Indian children have grown up hearing Sunny Deol’s famous “tareekh pe tareekh” dialogue, in which he vehemently criticizes the Indian legal system for prolonging cases while failing to provide the parties with justice. Deol’s tirade has significantly impacted jurists and attorneys across generations. Some may even argue that his harangue inspired them to pursue a career in law. Despite the unquestionable fact that this dialogue has ingrained itself in everyone’s thoughts, and many have cried out for action on judicial backlogs, the predicament of concern continues to be chronic and unyielding.
The ex-Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, stated in a 2021 judicial conference that “the inability of the Indian Judiciary to cope with the caseload is an overstatement and an uncharitable analysis”, further deliberating that the people in India know that “when things go wrong, the judiciary will stand by them”. However, on analyzing the data on judicial backlog and the condition of courts across the nation, a picture concurrent to the remark is yet to emerge. It is of immediate importance that the issues of judicial pendency are taken into consideration, deliberated upon, and analyzed to formulate judicial reforms to ensure timely justice for the aggrieved parties in our nation. This article will quantitatively and qualitatively analyze the severity of the problem of judicial backlogs in India, the core reasons that are causing it, and suggest potential solutions for allaying this age-old hindrance to effective justice.
THE PROBLEM OF PENDING CASES IN INDIA
With the Supreme Court judges having 193 working days annually, the High Court judges having 210 working days annually, and the District Court judges had 245 working days annually, our legal system currently provides our judges with a commensurately lax work schedule. According to data from August 2022, there are approximately 5.9 million cases in the High Courts and more than 71,000 cases that the Supreme Court monitors. The Supreme Court’s most recent statistics show that over the past 15 years, there have been a staggering 14.2 million High Courts and District Courts cases that have not yet been resolved—an increase of nearly 1,000,000 each year!
To know precisely what number of cases are pending across India, one may depend on the official data released by the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), an interactive page within the e-courts site. The data accessible on the page in early January 2023 showed that approximately 10.97 million criminal cases were pending while 38.15 million civil cases were pending. The total is a stunning 49.12 million cases! These vast numbers are implausible to be reduced even after decades of adjudication at the current pace.
THE CORE REASONS FOR THE JUDICIAL BACKLOG
Pendency has a few causes on both the demand side, i.e., an increasing number of newer cases, and on the supply side, i.e., the slow-paced disposal rate. The demand side incorporates excessive government litigation, far-reaching jurisdiction provided to the judiciary under the Indian Constitution, quick social, financial, and political changes causing more disputes, etc. On the other hand, supply-side causes include the codes of civil and criminal procedure that hinder the speedy disposal of the case, the availability of judges to hear writ applications, and India’s massive number of judicial vacancies. Furthermore, another issue is the improper spending of resources allotted to the judiciary. It was seen that not only are budgetary allocations made to the judiciary less than they should be, but they are also being used inefficiently.
Even improper case management within courts aggravates cases, which remain pending with courts for years. The primary goal of case management is to ensure that judges’ time and intellectual assets are used effectively. Nonetheless, because the judges have insufficient preparation time before hearing a case, their time is easily squandered once the proceeding starts. An effort to increase efficiency was made by promoting e-filing, aiming to make judicial processes less cumbersome and more efficient. Nevertheless, many of the lawyers, unfortunately, prefer to submit documents in physical format as it costs less, and even if e-filing is done, any
corrections made in the petition need to be accompanied by a hard copy of the same. Such procedural standards nullify the fundamental point of e-filing. Numerous procedural issues, like the filing of routine applications, end up wasting a large amount of precious judicial time and, hence, adversely impact judicial productivity.
THE CURRENT POSITION OF JUDICIAL REFORM
Until now, no real step has been taken toward allaying the judicial backlog. Ex-CJI NV Ramana’s proposal in March 2021 for establishing a specialized infrastructure corporation to modernize the judicial infrastructure came as a ray of hope. Such a statement turned all eyes on this burgeoning problem, with all stakeholders applauding the initiative and looking forward to a positive change. Unfortunately, this hype did not last long, and the torch lit to initiate judicial reforms has dimmed slowly over time. The promises, too, turned into a pipe dream, and though Justice Ramana’s term ended, the insufficiency of court infrastructure continues to persist.
As per Justice Ramana’s vision, the Nationwide Judicial Infrastructure Corporation (NJIC), an independent national organization, was tasked with monitoring infrastructure-related operations. Through it, the ex-CJI promoted the importance of improved judicial infrastructure, particularly in the district courts. A significant chunk of India’s judicial reforms has yet to see the light of day since the slightest attention was received by the judiciary’s infrastructure or lack thereof. Ruined structures, unusable restrooms, congested courtrooms, a lack of designated waiting areas, a lack of informative signs, and the like are just a few of the unpleasant realities that litigants, attorneys, and court employees have to deal with regularly. Justice Ramana’s goal of solving the dilemma of backlogs needs a wide-ranging set of ideas and policies. It is clearly challenging to address the problem of inadequate court infrastructure by simply creating a centralized organization.
Recent commentary on the judicial backlog has also come from Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who believes that finding qualified candidates for the High Court bench is already challenging, so adding more judges won’t solve the age-old issue of pendency. Moreover, Sushil Kumar Modi has pushed for innovative solutions and urged unconventional thinking to resolve the problem. Since we are at a loss of resources and techniques, finding feasible, inexpensive, and promising solutions is imperative.
THE WAY AHEAD
Specific judicial and procedural reforms need to be undertaken at the earliest to ensure this menace is resolved at the earliest. Some of them include the following:
- Provide a boost to Alternate Dispute Resolution
“The useful function of a lawyer,” as rightly expounded by H.L.A Hart, “is not only to conduct litigation but to avoid it wherever possible by the achieving settlement or withholding suit”. By diverting cases away from traditional litigation and towards alternative venues for more expeditious and cost-effective conflict resolution, Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) is one solution that can potentially lessen the load on our courts. It enables judicial minds to address more complex legal issues as opposed to routine personal conflicts that can be resolved just as successfully through mediation or conciliation. A crucial move in promoting its use was its statutory recognition through the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996. However, the notion that ADR is only appropriate for those with weak cases or limited means is still widely held. Such a mindset prevents the widespread use of ADR methods and makes it harder to give the disputing parties an even playing field. To dispel the myth that ADR is a compromise or a last option, reposition it as a workable alternative to swift resolution through constructive dialogue, and give it the impetus it merits, authorities and judicial figures must work cooperatively.
- Better usage of Lok Adalats Lok Adalat is another form of ADR where disputes are settled amicably at the pre-litigation stage. It was established in India through the Legal Services Authorities Act of 1987 to clear the issue of backlog in courts. Under this system, the parties involved in a dispute present their case before a panel of arbitrators, who facilitate negotiations and guide them to a mutually acceptable resolution. If such a settlement is reached, it is legally binding and enforceable, and the matter is considered resolved without the need for further court proceedings.As Justice Ramaswamy once said, “Resolving disputes through Lok Adalat not only minimises litigation expenditure, it saves valuable time for the parties and their witnesses and also facilitates an inexpensive and prompt remedy appropriately to the satisfaction of both parties.” Subsequently, the utilisation of Lok Adalat can significantly help ease the weight of the judicial backlog in Indian courts if the parties are provided with enough awareness to access these mechanisms before going for traditional legislation, all the while saving on time, money, and effort.
- Setting limitation period for disposing of cases The Limitation Act of 1963 provides for the periods of time within which the plaint by the plaintiff and the subsequent written statement are to be filed by the defendant in the court of law. There is a requirement for a similarly inflexible time barrier in the courts for disposing of cases. Such a suggestion was similarly extended by the ‘245th Law Commission Report: Report On Arrears And Backlog (2014)’ in pursuance of adopting a practice of fixing time limits for lower courts to wind up cases. India has made impressive strides recently by cutting the amount of time needed to resolve commercial issues by more than 50%, from 1,445 days in 2020 to a modest 626 days in 2022. Still, it has come with its own set of issues, like many trial judges refusing to take up genuine cases or disposing of cases without following due procedure. Justice P. Devadass commented on this matter by saying, “Fixing the time limit does not mean courts should ignore principles of law and natural justice and deny even a reasonable opportunity to the needy. When this court fixes the time limit, there will certainly be pressure on the trial court to finish the case. But while doing so, justice and principles of law cannot be finished altogether.” It is, therefore, essential to find a balance between ensuring that cases are adjudicated promptly and that judges do not feel that ‘Damocles’ sword’ is hanging over their heads, as commented by the Madras High Court (2016).
- Delegating administrative functions The administrative functions of the courts are presently handled by numerous court registries, which is a grave misuse of the judicial staff. The lack of professionalisation and skill development among judicial employees is due to such an ineffective system.Many nations have acknowledged the need for a separate, professional agency with a foundation of administration and management procedures to supplement the administrative activities of courts and tribunals.Some illustrations include the UK (through Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service), the USA (through the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts), Canada (through the Courts Administration Service), etc. India has also recognised the necessity of this change. In L. Chandra Kumar v. Union of India (1997), the Supreme Court suggested establishing an “authority charged withsupervising and fulfilling [the] administrative requirements [of tribunals]”. The likelihood of executive overreach has sadly thwarted any efforts in this direction because the imperative for judicial independence continues to take precedence over the objective of managerial effectiveness. Ex-CJI Ramana proposed in March 2021 that an“infrastructure body” be established to improve judicial facilities, but nothing further has been seen on the matter.
- Provide a boost to Alternate Dispute Resolution
In light of the staggering backlog of cases in India’s judiciary, urgent action is needed to address this pressing issue. It is imperative that India adopts a comprehensive strategy to combat the root causes of the problem while also addressing the immediate challenges. The time has come for the judiciary to undertake significant reforms prioritising efficiency, professionalism, and better
resource management. The consequences of a delayed justice system are severe, denying justice to millions of citizens and undermining the very foundation of our democracy. As a nation, we cannot afford to let this problem persist any longer. It is time to take bold steps towards building a robust judicial structure that can deliver justice promptly and effectively. The stakes are high,
and the time for action is now. Timely access to justice is a cornerstone of our judicial structure,
and one must remember that, as William E. Gladstone said, “justice delayed is justice denied
2nd year, Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow