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M J Antony: Against all odds

While the government makes empty promises, some reforms are starting from within the judiciary itself

M J Antony  |  New Delhi 

The new regime in the Supreme Court under Chief Justice dawns at a time when it is difficult to say whether it is the best of times or the worst of times. In the past five years, the mounting curve of pending cases has matched that of economic inflation, and rising vacancies in high courts have also been alarming. On the other hand, there have been vision statements from the law minister, which, when you rub your eyes, turn out to be empty dreams. Last fortnight, he released a “national litigation policy” too.

The arrears in the Supreme Court jumped from 35,201 in 2005 to 54,864 at present. The figures for high courts for the same period were 35,21,283 and 40,60,709, respectively. In the courts below, the rise was from 2,56,54,251 to 2,72,75,953. While high courts had 154 vacancies of judges in 2005, this has now shot up to 267. Vacancies in the subordinate courts have also gone up — from 2,730 five years ago to 2,785 now. The government and politicians have blamed the judiciary for this state of affairs. They attribute it to the frequent adjournments granted by the courts, long vacations, poor attendance in subordinate courts and corruption.

However, the judiciary has a better case against the government as it has been stingy in providing funds for court infrastructure, decent wages for the judges and lax about the appointment of judges. The judiciary looks more sinned against than sinning. The new chief justice on Monday promised to set up a special bench to look into the woes of the subordinate judiciary from next week, with special reference to infrastructure in each state.

The vision statements frequently made by the law minister from the podium of the Capital’s have so far proved to be a mirage. Little has been done during his tenure to help the judiciary come out of the mire. The also recounts the old clichés. Samples: “Cases where projects may be held up have to be defended vigorously keeping in mind public interest. They must be dealt with and disposed of as expeditiously as possible. Public interest litigation should not be taken as matters of convenience to let the courts do what government finds inconvenient.”

A former law minister stated last week that 90 per cent people in the country have no access to legal help. The judge-population ratio is an abominable 13:100,000. Most of the Bills to reform the judiciary and tackle corruption in it are in a state of suspended animation. One law, which proposes to introduce commercial courts, is suspect because it is the lawsuits of the corporate goliaths which will be put on fast track. There is no such fast-moving queue when life and property of ordinary citizens are concerned. For instance, the death sentence case of Swamy Shraddanand vs State of Karntaka took three years for decision in the Supreme Court itself. There is no speeding up of decades-old land acquisition cases, though they might involve the livelihood of the poor and inarticulate farmers.

Such as the last two examples are within the power of the judges themselves. Happily, the new chief justice has hinted at some drastic changes during hearings in the last two days. He asked the lawyers to group matters raising the same legal issue instead of bringing them up separately. He categorically stated that there would be no stay on tax recovery. Also, there would be no tax appeals in the garb of writ petitions. He was also harsh on appeals filed months after the deadline set by law.

There are other matters that perturb any visitor to the courts. Apart from easy adjournments, one would be astounded by the wordiness of the lawyers. A recent example is the celebrated Reliance appeals in the Supreme Court which started in autumn and droned their way till the winter, holding up hundreds of other cases. History books record that ancient Greek courts had water clocks to limit the long-windedness of lawyers. The Roman courts depended on sand clocks. The US Supreme Court uses an electric signal to stop arguments after half an hour. There is no such rule here.

The time taken between closing the arguments and delivery of the judgment is another area where the judges can inculcate some self-discipline. The previous chief justice took three years to write the decision in a case involving the lands of poor farmers. Earlier, some judges had expressly written in the judgments delivered on the last working day that they did not have sufficient time to study all viewpoints. The Supreme Court itself has emphasised in several judgments like Anil Rai vs State of Bihar, that long delay in delivering justice violated the fundamental rights of the litigants and they should be reheard by high courts as the judges would have forgotten the arguments. Charity, it is said, must begin at home.

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