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M J Antony: Only the bad news

A huge backlog of cases has worsened the Supreme Court's woes in 2014

M J Antony 

M J Antony

A Delhi High Court judge recently did a rough calculation and concluded that it would take 464 years to clear the arrears in his court, which has over 120,000 cases at the last count. His projection may not be as accurate as astronomers' prediction of the next sighting of a comet, but it says something about the state of affairs in the judiciary. The situation in other high courts cannot be better since the Delhi High Court boasts of pioneering futuristic e-courts.

If a Supreme Court judge does a similar back-of-envelope count, we would know how many aeons it would take to catch up with its infamous backlog. Perhaps by then the computers would have displaced judges and lawyers, the way telemedicine is said to be edging out doctors from clinics and making redundant other professionals. A 1957 work of fiction written by a British judge turned humorist had already hinted at the scenario. A robot in black robes will scan formatted petitions and deliver its verdict in staccato: "Dismissed". If a review petition or the newly-fangled "curative petition" is filed, it can snap in harsher metallic voice: Dura lex sed lex (the law is harsh, but it is the law), a Latin maxim cited in a Supreme Court judgment last month.

While there are 32 million cases pending in all courts, the figure for the Supreme Court havs reached an all-time high of 66,349 this year. Some 5,000 cases are added every month while only about 4,000 are disposed of during that period. Last year the court had started with 65,703 cases. Though the right to information era has set in, the court has turned its back on it and stopped publishing its annual report after 2009. Its quarterly, Court News, used to give comprehensive data on the cases pending in each high court and subordinate courts in the country, along with information on judges' strength in each court with vacancies. The demise of these publications must be due to the fact that the data are depressing.

The woes of the apex court have worsened in the New Year with two more factors (not counting the indelible stain left by the long arms of law). Ten judges out of the 29 are retiring in the coming months. This year will also see three chief justices, with the retirement of two short-term chiefs. It means that they would not have time to make any administrative reforms since they would be moving the pension papers as soon as they settle down in their high red chair. Appointments to fill up the posts will be delayed and the disappointing collegium system of selection of judges will continue. Last week, one judge of the Madras High Court created melodramatic scenes in a courtroom over the collegium.

Another piece of bad news is that the much-awaited Judicial Appointments Commission Bill 2013 introduced in the Rajya Sabha will be shelved, with lame-duck sessions in the offing. The Bill proposes to bring in legitimacy, transparency and accountability in judicial appointments and other aspects of justice administration. The proposals are severely criticised for falling short of world standards. The UK judicial commission invites candidates through public advertisements and in the US, the president's nominees go through rigorous public scrutiny in Senate's confirmation hearings. The proposed bill replaces the collegiums with another elite club sitting behind a tinted glass facade. All these are fodder for the fourth round of litigation in the Supreme Court over appointments and removal of judges.

Meanwhile, there have been little effective reforms from within, except the inescapable computerisation of procedures in higher courts. Adjournments are given at the drop of the gown. Lawyers argue one case four hours a day for months before judges who seem to be appreciating the intricacies of the rambling sub-clauses and dozens of conflicting precedents (the Supreme Court just concluded a three-month-long hearing of journalists' wage board case).

If one airbrush reform can be cited, it is that the Supreme Court will work for nearly 200 days in 2014, whereas last year it sat only 176 days. Before you say hurrah, remember that it still falls far short of the Law Commission's 230th report that vacations in the higher judiciary should be drastically curtailed and working hours should be extended by at least half an hour.

The courts below have not seen substantial improvement either. So, there are more undertrial prisoners than convicts. If 32 million cases are pending, more than a 100 million people might be in deep legal trough since one case involves many individuals and their families. The tale of tribunals is worse. Recently, the Securities and Exchange Board of India chairman tried to count the number of sectoral regulators and tribunals but could not finish the tally. If he had attempted to work out the number of vacancies in them, he would have given up the exercise much earlier. The judiciary is waiting for an aam aadmi revolution. One day a Kejriwal might rise singing an old film number promising "justice at the doorstep", delivered there by drones.

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First Published: Tue, January 14 2014. 21:48 IST