India's woefully underfunded court system, with its shortfall of judges but excess of corrupt lawyers, is also saddled with a gargantuan backlog of 29.2 million cases pending across hundreds of subordinate state-level courts, 21 high courts and the Supreme Court.
According to figures released recently by the Indian Supreme Court - the country's highest judicial authority - out of this mind-boggling number, over 25.4 million cases are pending in subordinate courts, 3.7 million cases in various high courts while the Supreme Court is stuck with 45,887 cases awaiting justice.
According to the Supreme Court's findings, among the states, Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state with a population of 180 million - leads the pack with 4.8 million cases awaiting trial followed by Maharashtra and Gujarat with 4 million and 3.4 million cases, respectively.
This huge backlog of unresolved cases, experts claim, is directly proportional to a lack of judges. So, while Uttar Pradesh has a vacancy of 521 judges against a required roster of 2,172, Maharashtra suffers from a shortfall of 376 against the current strength of 1,897 posts.
Consequently, during the last quarter of 2007, over 3.5 million cases were filed in subordinate courts across the country, out of which only some 3.3 million were tried. For the same period, 21 High Courts were able to clear 326,000 cases out of a total of 368,000, with the remaining cases adding to the already huge backlog for the quarter. A major fallout of this unsavory situation is that millions of Indians are currently awaiting justice.
According to legal experts, there are multifarious reasons for the current mess of the Indian judicial system. First and foremost, poor pay for judges causes a huge talent crunch. Unsurprisingly, according to the 120th Law Commission Report, India's population-to-judge ratio is one of the lowest in the world. While the United States and Britain have about 150 judges for every million of its population, India has only 10 judges for the same number.
In terms of pay parity, India's legal professionals are the worst off. The chief justice (considered the highest legal authority) takes home a paltry 33,000 rupees (roughly US$800) per month, while a Supreme Court judge draws 30,000 rupees and a High Court judge gets 25,000 rupees. This is a fraction of what senior judges draw in the Western world.
Unsurprisingly, such poor pay scales have triggered corruption, widespread bribery and political interference which denies millions their right to a fair trial. According to the global anti-corruption group Transparency International, as many as 77% of the Indians believe the country's judiciary is corrupt and 36% acknowledged coughing up bribes to the judiciary last year.
"An estimated [$600 billion] was the amount Indians shelled out as bribes to the judiciary, higher than the bribes paid out in any other sector in the country," says "Global Corruption Report 2007: Corruption in Judicial Systems". "The average amount of money [roughly $90] paid in bribes by a household in India in the past 12 months was maximum in the judiciary as compared to other sectors."
Elaborating on reasons for mounting corruption in the Indian judiciary, the report says delays due to a shortage of judges and complex legal procedures are propelling Indians towards undesirable measures to get justice. "The loss of confidence in the judiciary is mainly due to the long gestation period of litigation, with millions of cases pending disposal ... This backlog leads to long adjournments and prompts people to pay to speed up the process ... The degree of delays and corruption has led to cynicism about the justice system. People seek shortcuts through bribery and favors, leading to further unlawful behavior," reads the report.
According to Ramesh Thakur, a Mumbai-based Indian civil rights lawyer, "The current crunch of good lawyers and judges can be calamitous for the Indian judicial system. These professionals are indispensable for the courts to function efficiently and render speedy justice to litigants. So the government must step in to correct this crunch. This is the least one expects in the world's largest democracy."
Experts also underscore the urgent need for standards and benchmarks to screen frivolous Public Interest Litigations (PILs) with which Indian courts are currently deluged. This is vital to ensure that only the genuine ones with a justifiable cause of action based on judicially manageable standards are taken up. In this regard, it is suggested that the Supreme Court set up a special screening cell to deal with PIL matters and thoroughly scrutinize them.
"We need a three-tier system to test an applicant's credentials and correctness of details so that frivolous petitions can be dispensed with forthright," says Meena Ahuja, a human rights activist. "Unfortunately, in India, PILs are often used by politicians as a vehicle to settle political scores. And this delays speedy justice by clogging up the entire system," she adds.
In a scenario where the Indian judiciary was already hard-pressed to deliver justice as speedily as required, and at the same time, maintain high quality of work, pesky PILs only add to the system's nuisance value, not to mention inordinate delays, meaningless expenditure and harassment of citizens.
In other words, unless the Indian government employs urgent measures to revitalize its moribund judicial system, millions of its citizens will not receive timely justice. According to the Supreme Court's findings, the government also needs to tackle the current manpower shortfall, inadequate infrastructure and poorly training and pay for judges. Until these issues are resolved, Indian citizens will continue to grapple with protracted judicial delays and injustices.
By Ms.Bobby Aanand, Metropolitan Jury.