Keep it simple, silly : Overburdened judiciary and legal awareness

Aishwarya Visweswaran Words of Freedom Leave a Comment

The overburdening of the judiciary in India is not a story that is new. With a backlog of over 31 million pending cases in the High courts and subordinate courts, the Indian judicial system was made to induct 1,734 Fast Track Courts by the Eleventh Finance Commission to speed up the judicial process. Despite this expansion, only 3.2 million of these pending cases have been settled in the last 11 years as per a study by Outlook India in 2012. At that rate, clearing up only the backlog of cases would take another 364 years. So how do we ensure that this backlog is cleared at the earliest?

In our poll last week, we asked you to suggest the most significant reason for the over-burdening of the judiciary. The responses we received could be categorized as corruption (11.7%), lack of collaboration between governmental agencies (11.7%), lack of resources (29.4%) while a majority of respondents felt that inefficiency in judicial processes (35.2%) was the most significant reason. Only one of the 19 poll takers opined that lack of clarity on legal rights leads to a lot unnecessary litigation.

With regard to corruption within the system, a poll by Transparency International(TI) in 2012 shows that 45% of Indians who had contact with the judiciary between July 2009 and July 2010 had paid a bribe to the judiciary. According to TI, the most common reason for paying bribes in India in general is to “speed things up”.

The Hong-Kong based Asian Human Rights Commission estimated in 2013 that for every 2 rupees in official court fees, at least 1,000 rupees are spent in bribes in order to bring a petition before the court.

When it comes to lack of resources, TI calculates that for every million people in India there are 13 or 14 judges. This is an improvement from 2002, when the Supreme Court had directed the government to increase the number of judges from the then 10.5 judges per million to 50 judges per million,in a case brought by the All India Judges’ Association and others against the Union of India and others. But, as of 2013, this directive had not yet been fully implemented due to a lack of infrastructure, including the number of judges and facilities of judges to function, as well as a lack of cooperation and funding from state governments.

The Global Integrity Report 2011 indicates that there is, in fact, a high number of vacancies in the judiciary – only 14,295 of 17,945 judge positions are occupied. Regarding the high courts, India Today reports that nearly 32 percent of judge positions are vacant. The inaction in this regard is being attributed to the minimal resources allotted to the judiciary by the government, a reported 0.4% of the budget.

To tackle the issue of inefficiency, the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill has been introduced in Parliament to allow citizens to complain against a judge in case of corruption or misbehavior. The bill, if introduced, would create a multi-tiered checking mechanism in collaboration with the Right to Information Act as it lays down several standards that judges are required to adhere to.

But such legislative reformations only iron out issues from the supply side . A holistic and meaningful reform of the legal system cannot be achieved without efforts to improve legal literacy among the people who utilize services of the legal system. If people are more aware of laws and procedures, not only would they be less likely to be mislead, but also commit less process-related mistakes which currently add up to more red tape. Pro-active measures are needed to improve the common man’s legal literacy quotient. The most important is the simplification of laws and legal procedures. But they take several years and constantly evolve. Meanwhile, the speed of delivery of justice can only be increased by effectively communicating to the common man what the laws are and how they operate.

In Canada, for example, the government ensures the use of plain language in all its communication with the public to avoid ambiguity and complications. Efforts like these from the government are essential to improve legal awareness. Problems of corruption and inefficiency arise because citizens are unaware of their legal rights and are unable to navigate their way through the judicial system. This unhealthy dependency can be avoided if citizens are actively educated about legal provisions and reforms. These efforts from the government’s side are even more necessary now, with the large number of pending cases in courts, to prevent the popular adage from coming true- justice delayed is justice denied.

-Aishwarya Visweswaran
Research Assistant – Education @ India Institute

The poll referred to in the second paragraph is our Weekly Your View 28 that was posted on our social media on 8th May 2014.