Justice delayed is justice denied. Nowhere this rings truer than in India where a staggering 30 million cases are said to be pending in the country's courts today. And to tackle this intimidating problem requires comprehensive judicial reform, more judges of quality and improvement of the judicial infrastructure, jurists say.
"We need more quality judges who should be appointed through a transparent selection process and who are accountable for their actions," noted lawyer and transparency activist Prashant Bhushan said.
Till June 30, 2012, nearly 14,924 subordinate courts were burdened with nearly 30 million cases, 74 percent of which were pending for at least five years. Apart from these, fresh cases continue to be filed every day.
"The problem of the pendency of such a large number of cases is a combination of a number of factors, coupled with the lack of seriousness in dealing with the problem," Bhushan told IANS.
Jurist R.S. Dakha said the judicial officers alone could not be blamed for the huge backlog.
"A trial court judge has a daily list of around 25-30 cases, and at times, even 40 cases. The time available, in reality, is enough to deal with only four to five cases," Dakha said. "Without substantially increasing the judicial infrastructure, including the people manning it, the backlog of cases would continue to rise," Dhaka told IANS.
A serving prosecutor in Delhi blamed the misuse of some judicial provisions by various stakeholders for the mounting delays.
"At the root of this huge number of pending cases are the frequent adjournments," he said.
"There are loopholes in the provisions and the system," he added.
He gave the example of Section 309 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) that recommends that the examination of witnesses, once it commences, should preferably be conducted daily and without a break.
"But some provisions that allow adjournments in this process are often misused by both the prosecution and the defence," he said.
Dhaka concurred and said: "There are 100 grounds for interrupting the statutorily mandated continuous examination of witnesses and the system can't remove even one."
"The intent and scope of Section 309 is one thing and the court procedures are
alltogether different," said Dakha.
"This is unfortunate but there is nothing like uninterrupted examination of witnesses," he added.
A delay in a trial invariably works in favour of the defence as there was always a possibility of witnesses disappearing, getting compromised or turning hostile, Dhaka said.
Choosing to hold back his name, a senior public prosecutor of Delhi government said no one could be burdened with the blame for long delays in the disposal of cases and the huge pendency.
"It is a combination of factors that have contributed to the present state of the subordinate judiciary, wherein justice is denied in nearly every case due to delays," he said.
"Sometimes it is the defence which seeks an adjournment. On another occasion, it is the prosecution. Instances of witnesses not being present in court, forcing a postponement of the hearing, are also frequent," he said.
"A public prosecutor in Delhi is assigned three sessions courts and since he can't be present in all the courts at the same time, he is forced to seek adjournments," he said.
So, are the provisions of Section 309 CrPC more a myth than a practical reality? Not really, said Dhaka.
"It is possible that once the examination of witnesses starts then it could go on uninterrupted but for that you need more judges, more judicial infrastructure and judicially trained manpower," Dhaka said.