Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Death by Delay : The Clogged Legal System

The news that Justice Mohapatra probing the Kandmahal disturbances in Orissa has said up front that his enquiry would take a year or more even before he has started on the job is disturbing. Of course it is the norm in India for justice to crawl at the pace of a snail and for verdicts to be delivered at a glacial pace but in this instance; none can be blamed if they begin to suspect that here is a case where a kind of verdict has been delivered even before it has begun. For who knows what the political landscape will look like in a year’s time? General Elections would have been held by then and a new government would have come into power.

Is that what the Navin Patnaik government counting on? Hoping that the typical delays of Commissions of Enquiry coupled with a changed political climate would render the findings of the commission toothless? After all, the instances where enquiries have lingered are legion. The first Justice Nanavati Commission that probed the 1984 anti Sikh riots submitted its report in 2005 after 10 extensions. This was obviously years after the event when many key figures were dead or in oblivion. The Nanavati commission appointed to probe the Godhra train accident asked for 12 extensions and submitted its report six years after the accident, just weeks ago. The Liberhan commission has notched up 16 years of existence and earlier this month was given its 47th extension. There is no assurance that this would be the last.

Of course it is easy enough to exploit loopholes in the legal system, when in any case it is drowning and choking under inherent systemic flaws. The Supreme Court Registry reports that at the end of August 2008, close to 48,000 cases were awaiting a verdict from the highest court in the land. As on Jan 31, 2007, a total of 40,243 civil and criminal cases were pending there and according to statistics, the no. of such cases was around 29,000 in the start of the year 2006.

Further, as you go down the ladder, the situation gets more and more alarming. Available data shows that a total of 3,991,251 cases (3,287,037 civil cases and 704,214 criminal cases) were still pending in 21 high courts of the country till Dec 31, 2006. Pendency in subordinate courts had increased from 2.04 lakh in 1999 to 2.57 lakh in 2005. In 2006, the figure has slightly come down to 2.49 lakh. According to a rough and ready calculation, at the current speed, the lower courts, may take 124 years for clearing the cases, currently pending.

As legal education takes root in the country, it is only to be expected that litigation will slowly increase and it therefore important to ensure that alternate dispute resolution mechanisms be looked at and popularized. Some of course like the lok adalats and the consumer courts have gained some currency but their full potential is yet to be realized; a few others like arbitration have never been very popular except among corporate disputes. Many other traditional methods of arbitration and dispute resolution are outmoded and increasingly out of date. The typical reaction – to increase the number of courts, judges et al is only a partial solution as this route will only keep increasing the burden on the tax payer and the exchequer. Till that time, and till an alternate dispute resolution mechanism comes together, justice delayed will continue to be justice denied – whether it is in a politically motivated enquiry commission or the pettiest of cases in the small causes court.

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