As per Article 22 of the Constitution and the twelve-point directive of the Masder Hossain case, the responsibility of judicial magistracy was entrusted upon the Judiciary on November 1, 2007 with a view to ensuring its separation from the Executive. On the occasion of the twelve-year anniversary of this separation, it is, therefore, pertinent to look back on the expectations and realities of judicial magistracy.
Before the entrustment of the supervisory power of magistracy to the judiciary happened in 2007, the total number of authorised magistrate courts were 655 (Source: The Daily Star, 22 October, 2007). However, the judiciary had to start its journey with only 218 magistrates (The Daily Star, 1 November, 2007). At the end of 2007, the number of ongoing cases before the magistrate courts were 6,18,671. This means that the judicial magistracy started its journey with nearly six lacs pending cases with only 218 magistrates against the previous 655. As a result, judicial magistracy faced adversities from the very beginning.
As of June 30, 2019, there are 13,33,117 civil and 17,55,174 criminal cases pending before the lower courts of Bangladesh. The number of cases before the judicial magistrates’ courts is 6,64,063 and in metropolitan areas, it is 2,72,340. It is clear from these numbers that the number of criminal cases is much higher in the courts of magistrates that that of civil cases. One must also remember that the magistrates take cognizance of such cases before forwarding them to the court which has the jurisdiction to hear them. Therefore, it is obvious that the workload at the courts of magistrates is rather high. The role of magistrates in the protection of law and order is undeniable. However, there are not enough magistrates for performing these tasks.
At the end of 2007, the ratio of magistrates to cases was at 1:945. As of 2019, the number of magistrates authorised to perform judicial functions is 620 and in metropolitan areas, the number is 66. However, although the number of authorised positions is 686, the number of magistrates appointed is often lower. As of June 2019, the ratio of magistrates to cases is 1:1365, which may be even higher in practice if the actual number of working magistrates is accounted for.
Although the number of magistrates is clearly limited, an overview of the statistics of their work can provide a picture of their efficacy. In the past 12 years, about 88,47,168 cases have been lodged in the courts of magistrates. The rate of disposal of cases is 96.58%. The rate of disposal in 2019 (as of June 30) is 95.99%. It must be mentioned that alongside the cases, the courts of magistrates have other functions such as taking cognizance, hearing bail petitions, CS/FR, Naraji petitions, etc.
From the statistics, it appears that the number of posts of magistrates increased in the last twelve years is only 31; number of new Upazillas formed between 2011 and 2018 is 45. Naturally, propositions are made for the creation of new posts, which are almost never heeded. According to news reports, there are talks about the creation of 346 new posts of judicial magistrates. The realisation of this process will hopefully result in expedited justice and thereby in satisfaction of the litigants.
Moreover, although many laws call for separate fora, the added responsibility if often placed on the pre-existing courts of magistrates. For example, there are provisions of separate courts under Environmental Court Act 2010, Safe Food Act 2013, etc. In mnay of these cases, the responsibilities are placed on the senior judicial magistrates instead. If special magistrates were to be appointed for these courts, the disposal rate would definitely improve and the quality of work could also be easily ensured as well.
Therefore, the achievements and shortcomings of the judicial magistracy must be evaluated keeping in mind the constraints discussed above. At the end of the day, the judiciary has an accountability to the public.
The writer works for Bangladesh Judicial Service.