The time taken for cases to come to trial in Indian courts is getting longer. The average percentage of cases pending trial in state high courts and lower courts has increased to 84.81% in 2013 compared with 82.8% a decade earlier. That is not only a function of increasing number of cases that are being filed but also because the judiciary has become slower in disposing off cases. The completion rate for cases has fallen to 13.19% in 2013 from 14.61% in 2003. If the percentage point increase doesn’t seem significant, note that the outstanding number of criminal cases before the judiciary was 9.71 million in 2013. These are just cases filed under the Indian penal code. A similar number of cases has been filed under special and local laws of states.

To be sure, there is a wide disparity in the percentage of cases pending trial in different states. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, only 65 out of 100 cases are pending for trial compared with West Bengal’s pendency rate of 96.4%. That is not only owing to unequal levels of judicial strength and infrastructure, but factors such as costs as well.

“In Chennai, the court fees are huge, while in Gujarat it is lower so people can afford to litigate. Hence right from the beginning the Madras High Court has had a higher disposal rate," said Arvind Datar, a Supreme Court lawyer.

Surprisingly, the proportion of cases that are stuck pending police investigations has little bearing in the ability of the courts to speedily finish trials. For instance, in Gujarat, where 92 out of every 100 cases are pending before the court, only 11.5% are waiting for police investigations to be completed. On the other hand, in Assam where 80 out of 100 cases are waiting to be picked up the court, about 59% of cases are awaiting police investigations.

That said, inadequate strength of the police force has also played its part in the pile up of cases before the courts. Nineteen of the 24 states for which data is available recorded an increase in the proportion of cases awaitng police investigation over the past decade.

The Law Commission report said that speedy investigation by the police has not been achieved due to reasons ranging from corruption within the system to the apathetic attitude of the officers in taking the case earnestly. In cases involving public figures or powerful personalities, trials and investigations are especially slow. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had ordered timely completion of trials against MPs and MLAs facing corruption or other serious criminal charges. As per the directive, all such cases would have to completed within one year of framing the charges.

But for the majority of cases in the country, the wait for disposal continues to be long. There is a need for alternate dispute resolution mechanisms to dispose cases speedily while strenghtening the prosecution mechanism and judicial infrastructure. After all, justice delayed is justice denied.

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