Justice is crumbling, but no one bothers

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India’s Parliament and State Assemblies have many law-makers who have criminal records. Thus, it’s no wonder that few steps have been taken to improve the country’s outdated criminal justice system

There is an old saying, which clearly has been forgotten in this country: ‘In a democracy, you can fool some of the people all the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.’ The Prime Minister, while addressing the legal fraternity during the golden jubilee celebrations of the Bar Council of India last month, urged lawyers to work with judges to provide speedy justice to the people.

Mr Manmohan Singh said that it was of critical importance that the bench and the bar worked together in ensuring the rule of law in our country and in furthering our Constitutional objectives. “Unless this happens, we cannot succeed substantially in providing speedy and affordable justice to millions of our countrymen, especially those who belong to poor and weaker sections of society”,  he added. As a postscript, he added that the Government was aware of its responsibility to build a “strong and effective” justice delivery system.

Then, as if the Government was not aware of how to solve this problem despite clear recommendations of the Law Commission regarding how self-created challenges can be overcome and bottlenecks removed, Mr Singh said that an obvious area of concern was the large number of cases pending in courts, especially in trial courts. “I would urge the whole of the legal fraternity to pool their knowledge, wisdom and experience to find ways and means to tackle this problem”, he added.

Interestingly, it is the Centre and the States that together account for 70 per cent of the three crore cases that are pending in various courts in India. This, in effect, makes the Government the largest litigant in this country.  The question here is: When the Government makes for two-third of all court cases, then where is the time for the courts to attend to the common man’s grievance?

Now, the Centre has formulated a National Litigation Policy, which will help it and the States — which are only too eager to adopt the new policy — shed this shameful tag over the next four years and decongest the dockets of the courts. One only hopes that the Prime Minister is aware that in a vast majority of the cases involving the state, no Government appeal needed to be filed in the first place.

At present, with the sanctioned strength of 17,945 judges, the lower judiciary is struggling to clear a backlog of about 3.32 crore cases pending across the country. Over 3,650 posts of judges are lying vacant. At approximately 9.5 judges per million people, India’s judges-to-population ratio is grossly lower than many developed economies such as the US, for instance, where the ratio stands at 104 judges per one million people. Even neighbouring Bangladesh has a 12 to 13 judge per million population ratio.


In 1987, the Law Commission noted the low Indian ratio of 10.5 judges per million people and recommended increasing it to 50 with immediate effect and to over 100 by 2000. This recommendation was reiterated by a parliamentary standing committee in February 2002.

Twenty-two High Courts in the country have 895 positions for judges. Of these, 282 are vacant. The Government knows when senior judges are expected to retire. Why can’t it start the process of recruitment well in advance? There are millions of lawyers who are fit to adorn the benches of High Courts. It is a shame that the Government cannot locate such persons on time.

Similar is the position of the lower judiciary, where there are 17,945 positions for judicial officials. Over 3,650 of those are lying vacant. That is well over 20 per cent. If the present system is incapable of filling empty posts, then it is best to discard it and engage in some out-of-the-box thinking so that a system which delivers can be put in place. Unfortunately, there is no premium on original thinking in the Government as most civil servants follow pre-established rules.

The standard excuse for not increasing the strength of the lower judiciary is that it is a State Subject. I once even asked an influential Minister why the Union Government, which is responsible for framing laws, does not upgrade the entire system. His response was that the criminal justice system is the responsibility of the States. I then asked him why there were Union Ministries covering purely State Subjects. To that question, he had no answer.

Also, there are several supposed State schemes which are being implemented by the Centre and vice versa. Either way, the time has come for the Union Government to abolish some archaic schemes, plans and ministries and then spend the money saved in the process on improving the creaking criminal

justice system.

After all, it is no secret that many Government departments and ministries have no reason to exist except to provide jobs to bureaucrats and party loyalists. Here is a list of some Government departments that should be scrapped: Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries and the Department of Chemicals, Department of Fertilizers, Department of Pharmaceuticals. The list is not comprehensive, by any means.

The bigger problem here is that the Government of India acts only when it has a crisis on hand. It rarely acts to prevent a crisis. For example, it was only when the public came out onto the streets demanding death penalty for rapists that the Centre tried to change the laws so that the guilty get their just desserts. Yet, the Government has known all along that India’s laws, passed by the British in 1863, are not only archaic but also obsolete. Yet, it has rarely raised a finger to junk them.

One of the reasons why improving the criminal justice system has clearly been put on the back-burner is because all our State Assemblies and Parliament have a high percentage of criminals. As per their own affidavits, filed at the time of contesting elections, 153 Members of Parliament at present have criminal records.

The Uttar Pradesh Assembly has 189 tainted MLAs, out of the total 403, and these law-makers belong to all sorts of political parties. Uttar Pradesh is followed by Maharashtra, where 146 out of 287 MLAs have criminal records. Bihar comes next with 139 tainted MLAs out of 241. However, in terms of percentage of ‘tainted’ votes for presidential election, Jharkhand had the highest number at 74 per cent, followed by Bihar at 58 per cent and Maharashtra at 51 per cent.

In all fairness, we cannot always lay all the blame at the politicians’ door. Every citizen needs to pull his weight in favour of good governance. One must bear in mind that one cannot escape history. Good governance rarely depends upon good laws but up on the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of the state is always subordinate to the will of those who run that machinery.

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