New Delhi: India's slow wheels of justice are slowing down the economy. Such is the magnitude of the problem that the last two economic surveys authored by two different chief economic advisers have dedicated entire chapters to it. Much of the discourse around India’s pendency problem focus on the delays in high courts and the Supreme Court. Delay in these courts matter because they deal with high-profile cases but the root of the problem lies in India’s lower courts. Nearly 90% of all pending cases in the country come from India’s lower courts (district and subordinate courts) which are the first port-of-call for most legal disputes.

As part of a broader effort to digitize court records, the Supreme Court launched the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) in 2015 to track judicial performance across different courts in the country. Among original cases (i.e., new cases registered at the courts), more than half the cases (56%) in India’s lower courts are disposed of within a year, the database shows. Much of this is because around half the cases registered in courts are either dismissed without trial (21%), transferred to another court (10%), or settled outside the court (19%).

For other cases though, a resolution can take time. And of these cases, certain types of cases are particularly prone to delays. For instance, land-related issues seem to take significantly more time than the average case with nearly two-thirds of these cases resolved after three years. Similarly, around half of all labour-related cases in lower courts are only resolved after three years. As this year’s Economic Survey put it, these type of delays are casting a ‘long shadow’ on economic activity. Slow courts lower uncertainty and allow firms to make crucial investment decisions. In a 2012 study, Matthieu Chemin of McGill University found that speedier courts, defined as courts with a lower workload, were associated with small firms suffering fewer breaches of contract, investing more, and enjoying better access to finance.

Delays in the lower courts are a result of several factors. The biggest factor for delays is stay orders. Nearly half of all cases are delayed because of a stay order issued by a high court or the district court itself — which can temporarily stop a judicial proceeding and require responses from involved parties. Lower courts also struggle to secure the presence of witnesses, the second biggest reason for delays according to the NJDG data. Only around 17% of cases pending for more than 5 years are delayed because of the complexity of the case.

For all of these problems, the most commonly prescribed solution has been to increase the staff strength. Several commissions and legal scholars have suggested India’s courts need more judges to process the backlog of cases. According to the 2018-19 Economic Survey, an addition of 2,279 judges would allow India’s lower courts to clear all the fresh cases it receives in a year while 8,152 additional judges would allow it clear its entire backlog within five years.

Currently, across India’s lower courts, there are 17,785 judges which is 5,450 short of the sanctioned strength, according to data presented in the Rajya Sabha on 11 July 2019. Some states’ courts are particularly understaffed. Uttar Pradesh’s lower courts need 1,427 judges to reach their sanctioned strength while Bihar needs 643.

These are also the states with more pending cases with nearly 50% of cases in lower courts pending for more than three years. However, there are exceptions to this trend. For instance, West Bengal’s lower courts are at 92% capacity in terms of judges but around 50% of cases have been pending for more than three years.

This could suggest that simply increasing the judges may not be enough to address the backlog. The 245th Law Commission, for instance, suggested that merely increasing the number of judges without improving infrastructure in lower courts would do little to help address delays.

To improve this infrastructure, the 2018-19 Economic Survey recommends creating a specialized service called the Indian Courts and Tribunal Services (ICTS) which would provide critical administrative support to Indian judges. This, the surveys argue, would allow judges to devote time to judicial activity while the ICTS could focus on streamlining processes and reducing case-related delays.

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