On Wednesday, a New Delhi district judge sentenced former Union communications minister Sukh Ram to three years imprisonment for, among other crimes, illegally usurping Rs4.25 crore when he was a cabinet minister.
Although it’s surprising that a Congress bigwig actually received prison time, the delay in judgement is particularly troubling: Justice took 13 years. But 83-year-old Ram certainly didn’t feel that way; he told The Indian Express the district judges were in a hurry to reach the high court. “I think I became a victim of this rush,” he said.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Now wait a moment, 13 years is a rush?
Ram’s case is indicative of a grave problem with the Indian justice system, which abets political corruption. The judicial system is so glacial that, in many cases, the legal process is circumvented. Such a strain fails to hold individuals accountable and leaves many so jaded with the courts that they don’t bother engaging with them in the first place.
This month, Delhi’s high court released a damning indictment of itself. In its report, the court said it would take a whopping 466 years to clear its caseload. On average, it has 64 cases a day, spending about 5 minutes on each one.
Even the most diligent court cannot actually deliver fair judgement in 5 minutes per case. And this is a high court which, one would hope, is dealing with the most pressing matters passed on from district courts.
The high court’s report is staggering in many regards: At least 600 cases are older than 20 years. Surely justice cannot be served two decades after an incident—by then many involved in the proceedings may be deceased.
Delhi chief justice Ajit Prakash Shah pleads in the report: “These figures only highlight the crushing load which the courts —the Delhi high court being no exception—have to shoulder.”
To attain a truly effective Indian judicial system, broad reforms are necessary. First, the appeal processes must be reformed. As it is, much of the high court’s work is appeals passed on from lower courts. The district courts need a stronger vetting process of appeals.
Finally, the number of lower courts must be drastically increased to tackle the crushing caseload before it becomes a bottleneck at the top. In many situations, the most mundane of offences—say, a traffic cop taking a Rs500 bribe—are never prosecuted because of the time such an endeavour would entail. This contributes to a culture of corruption. If the courts can’t stop Rs500 bribes, is it any wonder it took 13 years for Ram to be charged for the theft of crores?
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