Sweeping changes in the judiciary are must in order to modernise it so that it can provide timely and affordable justice
When it comes to assessing governance, it is usually the performance of the Executive and the bureaucracy that is scrutinised by the media and experts. But a sound, effective and independent judiciary is equally important in a country to protect the constitutional rights of the people. The hallmark of an efficient judicial system is how fast it delivers justice. Today more than 3.5 crore cases are pending in Indian courts and the number is increasing every year almost at the rate of 9.7 per cent. In the Supreme Court (SC) alone the number of pending cases as on July 2019 was 58,669. The Chief Justice of India (CJI) took up the matter with the Prime Minister for increasing the retirement age of judges to deal with this backlog. Though this idea might have some merit, the real issue, however, is the absence of quick, affordable and accessible justice for a vast majority of our people. The causes of pendency are also the way our judicial system functions. The Government must seize this opportunity to discuss with an open mind the restructuring of our faltering judicial mechanism so that a futuristic, natural justice regime is created which is quick, fair and affordable not only at the district level but right up to the apex court.
On many national issues of public interest, the judiciary has come to the rescue of citizens, right from enforcing fundamental rights to ensuring conservation of the environment, protecting the basic features of the Constitution, independence of institutions and also firmly correcting aberrations in discharging duties as per the law by the executives and primarily the bureaucracy. However, the moot question is why the judiciary is perceived to have failed on the issue of providing quick access to justice to commoners. The cost of getting justice is very high, cumbersome and time consuming and powerful people get away with their misdeeds in many cases. Therefore, there is a need for sweeping changes in the judiciary in order to modernise it so that it can provide timely and affordable justice by mirroring the needs of present day society.
On visiting a court, the first impression is that getting justice is a tedious process, especially in civil suits, due to constant delays in court proceedings. The law and its interpretation is so cumbersome that in frustration many people leave their fight midway and the rich and powerful who can afford costly advocates get their way. This is particularly true in case of property disputes among close family members. Here the law, instead of finding contours of natural justice, gets trapped in the nitty-gritty of interpretations.
During the early eighties, judicial reforms brought many tribunals into existence so that domain expertise is used in handling cases on specific subjects along with judicial scrutiny and in order to give quick delivery of justice and to reduce the work of High Courts. Many tribunals however, have become the biggest impediments for justice in many cases. Take for instance the National Consumer Dispute Redressal Forum (NCDRF) and the Central Administrative Tribunal (CATs). These bodies constituted under two different Acts of Parliament, have become another sinecure for retired judges and a few bureaucrats. They are the antithesis of the purpose they were set up for, holding up cases for many years. There is a case being heard in the Bench of a retired bureaucrat in the NCDRF for the last four years against the Amrapali Group in Noida. The member is extening dates after dates with a gap of 10-12 months and it seems like he is helping the builder more than the litigants. Interestingly, the same issue is being heard by the SC and the consumer forum should have closed the case as its decision had been overridden by the apex court in any case. The situation is no different in CATs. In the Guwahati CAT, the simple case of one officer has not been decided for the last seven years as the members are either on leave or keep postponing the matter on flimsy grounds. Needless to say, the officer is suffering. The Law Ministry should appoint a committee to examine if the purpose of creating these bodies is achieved. There may be umpteen cases which can be cited to invoke the conscience of our SC and the Government to see if the country can review its legal framework and at least simplify it in many cases. The judiciary must evolve a protocol so that judges decide the cases within a time limit and develop a mechanism to quickly deal with intricacies of cases. Another issue is of providing judicial assistance and the exorbitant fee charged by lawyers. It should also be examined if the profession of judges could be separated from lawyers. It will bring more professionalism and effectiveness into the system. For tribunals and other such bodies, only serving judges should be appointed so that they are accountable for what they do. However, the SC should constitute a panel of experts of domain knowledge to assist the judges on subject matters if the need arises. Hope this piece can attract the attention of the CJI, the Prime Minister and the Law Minister and spur some thinking on the issues raised here.
(The writer is a retired civil servant)