Huge case backlog only hurting citizens
We are alarmed to learn that a backlog of around 42 lakh cases is pending with courts across the country, including the Appellate and High Court Divisions of the Supreme Court. Reportedly, of the cases, 7,89,179 have been pending with district courts for more than five years. This is causing immense suffering for litigants who have seen their legal fees increased (making it hard to pursue justice for many) with the addition of stress which comes with long-unresolved cases. If legal redress or equitable relief for an injured party is not forthcoming in a timely fashion, it is effectively the same as having no remedy at all. Justice delayed is justice denied, as the maxim goes. As such, the backlog is putting a big question mark on our justice system.
The pile-up of cases is happening in spite of an increased rate of case disposals in recent years. At present, there are eight judges for the Appellate Division, 90 judges for the High Court Division, and around 1,800 judges for the lower courts. These numbers are minuscule in a country of about 17 crore people, and no amount of sincerity on the part of the judges can meet their legal needs. For years, legal experts have been drawing attention to this crisis. It is, therefore, vital that the government takes it seriously and fast-tracks the work on enacting a law for the appointment of High Court judges, which is reportedly underway. Moreover, as the chief justice himself had previously said, the number of lower court judges also needs to be doubled or tripled to reduce the increasing backlog of cases. Since the number of judges cannot be increased significantly overnight, the government needs to formulate a comprehensive strategy on how to conduct the appointments over time, but also with urgency.
As well as judge shortages, the other major reasons behind the backlog of cases are the extremely slow process of investigation and charge-sheet submission, continued postponement of hearing dates, and lack of witnesses to testify during trials. These are systemic problems that need to be sorted out systemically.
Delay in disposal of cases, which has become a norm these days, is discouraging people from pursuing justice through the legal channel, according to various studies. This shows that on the one hand, people are losing faith in the justice system, while on the other hand, they are pursuing other means of settling disputes so as not to go through hassles – high legal fees, endless court visits, etc. – involved with going to the court. But that is only for those who are privileged enough to find alternative settlement options. What about those who do not even have the means to do so?
At the end of the day, a functioning democracy must be able to equitably deliver justice through the judicial process. This calls for the state to urgently fix all the problems and anomalies associated with case backlog, so that citizens don't have to wait endlessly for a legal remedy.