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M J Antony: On tight purse strings

The judiciary has always been neglected in Budgets

M J Antony 

M J Antony

This is the time when lobbyists cool their heels after hectic activity preceding the Budget. Now that the Budget makers are working in the quarantined basement of the North Block in the capital, they can only wring their fingers and hope for the best for the work they have done for their sponsors. The few interest groups for which no one has to speak up for consists of the judiciary, the legal profession and litigants in general.

Since the judges, from their position, cannot form a pressure group to clamour for more funds, it was expected of the rest of the legal profession to take up this public cause. There was an opportunity a few days ago when all state bar councils met at the call of the Bar Council of India. The only thing they did was to run down the proposal of the new Chief Justice, R M Lodha, of scrapping long court vacations as impractical and unworkable. There was not a word about the government starving the judiciary of funds; no plea for more Budget allocations, no wish list before the new government. It would seem that the lawyers' body wants to perpetuate the current ignominious status quo, getting paid for interminable adjournments and tying up briefs for years in forensic minutiae.

The chief justices and jurists have consistently pointed out that the share the judicial system gets from the budgets, the Union or the states, is meagre. Two months ago, Chief Justice Lodha said that it is getting only between 0.4 and 0.11 per cent of budgetary allocations. The percentage has remained static for years. The other Cinderellas such as health and education have started getting a better share and attention due to social concerns and public awareness. However, courts are still neglected, as vouched for by the current chief justice.

In contrast, the allocation for the justice system is 1.2 per cent in Singapore, 1.4 per cent in the US and 4.3 per cent in the UK. The miserly allotment the Indian judiciary gets includes what it generates from court fees, stamp duty and other miscellaneous heads, which also go to the general pool.

This creates a grim picture in terms of human suffering. More than 30 million cases are pending before the courts. Some judges have said that it would take decades to clear the matters already pending before them. Against the Law Commission recommendation of 50 judges for one million people, the current ratio is 10.5 for one million. Nearly half the judges' posts are vacant. Tribunals, nearly 40 at last count, are in a worse condition. The consequences are dismal to millions of people awaiting justice. Jails are overflowing with persons awaiting trial. Substantial numbers have already undergone imprisonment for periods they would have been sentenced if they were convicted.

Unappealing service conditions and hidden pressures keep away the best talents at the bar from accepting judicial posts. Good lawyers have to sacrifice sizeable income if they are elevated to the bench. Judges must also be made of "sterner stuff" to resist political and corporate arm-twisting, as seen in recent episodes of mysterious recusals. As a result, the legal eagles have invited a situation in which they have to argue intricate points of law before a less-endowed brethren. It could be called poetic justice, but for the fact that the clients are the sufferers.

It is well-known that the government is the largest single litigant and 60 per cent of the cases involve central laws. Therefore, the Union should contribute adequately to the expenditure on better administration of the courts. New laws are manufactured at every turn without estimating the expenditure involved. In the US, bills are said to annex a financial allocation after a "judicial impact assessment".

Successive chief justices have called for financial and administrative autonomy for the judiciary. This third arm of the state ideally deserves a Budget of its own, much more than the railways. Currently, funds come piecemeal from different sources and each can blame the other for delays and inadequacy. Chief justices don't know from where the next cache would come. Currently, they have to send court registrars to panhandle before government secretaries and others who hold the purse strings.

Ideas are not wanting. For example, a 2001 consultation paper on financial autonomy for the judiciary suggested a judicial council that would prepare a Budget in consultation with the executive. Advisors from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) would be involved in drafting it. The CAG will monitor the disbursement and expenditure. However, such ideas have not registered in the mind of the decision-makers.

In the recent election manifestos, the Congress has been characteristically dismissive of the plight of the judiciary, with only a few sentences devoted to it. The Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto was elaborate on this subject. Looking at the past record, it is difficult not to be sceptic. But we are told to wait for the good days to come. No one should carry a stopwatch during the honeymoon.

First Published: Tue, July 01 2014. 21:48 IST