(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)
(Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

Opinion | The case for comprehensive reforms of our judicial system

With the country’s judiciary at a crossroads, the big question is whether it will address the issues that matter to the rest of us

To project the controversy involving the Chief Justice of India (CJI) as a potential threat to the institutional purity and integrity of the highest judicial office is not only highly premature, but undesirable as well. Some of the interpretations that have been made could impact the process of judicial reform that the incumbent had indicated he would pursue single-mindedly on the eve of his elevation to the post. The adventurism by a section of activists these days is nothing short of excessive. In the process, real issues confronting the judiciary are getting relegated to oblivion.

Consider the slow delivery of justice. Pendency in courts is often attributed to inadequate infrastructure and lack of facilities for judicial functionaries. State and central governments are held responsible for insufficient budgetary provisioning for the same. A scrutiny of higher financial allocations in the last 10-15 years, including hikes in salaries of judicial officers vis-à-vis other state services, however, does not suggest that visible improvements in facilities have led to noticeably faster disposal of pending cases. The courts cannot hold governments responsible for vacancies or delays in promotional appointments either, since the Supreme Court and respective high courts now exercise full control over judicial appointments. Further, executive high-handedness could hardly be held guilty for the sclerosis choking the administration of justice. It is probably convenient to pin the blame on elected governments for even judicial mal-administration, including the pendency pile-up.

It is time to dispassionately examine the functioning of courts and signs of an increasing loss of public faith in the judiciary, despite individual presiding judges setting occasional examples by disposing of even serious criminal cases in mere months. Surely such green-shoots are replicable. Perhaps it may sound futile to singularly blame judges for abnormal delays that amount to justice being doubly blind. At times, due to the prosecution’s failure to establish the charges beyond reasonable doubt, an alleged criminal of limited means gets acquitted, but only after suffering incarceration for a term that ends up being longer than the maximum punishment under law. But, resourceful defendants are seen escaping culpability not necessarily on merit, but due to their ability to quickly manage judicial processes to their advantage. There is something seriously wrong with the country’s judicial eco-system.

Judges are often found focusing on procedural rituals rather than substantive issues, even though cutting down the years taken to conclude litigation is the need of the hour. Without self-discipline and enforceable timelines, non-judicial staff are also found taking advantage of the prevailing opaqueness. Barring exceptions, unless their unwarranted expectations are fulfilled, they tend to aggravate the woes of justice-seekers by delaying the registration of cases, misplacing case records, and avoiding timely issuance of court notices/orders. This is hardly a secret, particularly in lower courts. Deliberately or otherwise, many judicial officers appear to condone such practices, as if to maintain the facade of a harmonious environment in courts. It comes at the cost of genuine litigants.

Disposal delays largely occur when lawyers seek unnecessary processes and repeated adjournments. Granting such adjournments also suits many magistrates and judges since it diffuses accountability, even if it means natural justice takes an unnatural form. Often, lawyers are found trying to influence the conduct of courts. One finds groups of lawyers forcing strikes for days, weeks or months even at high courts against reformative steps being attempted by well-meaning judges, but these are rarely seen agitating to improve the justice delivery system.

It hardly entails any administrative cost to upload authenticated digitally-signed judicial orders which can thereafter be readily downloaded by litigants on payment of service charges online. Petitions can be registered, with signed copies presented by litigants at the hearing for admission. One fails to understand why simple divorce cases based on mutual consent should require filing applications multiple times for a first motion, waiver, second motion, etc. Years of youthful lives are wasted in adjournments. Such processes only enhance the business interests of legal practitioners. Some presiding judges seem pleased to go along. Shorn of its trappings, this amounts to the harassment of people whose frayed emotions require handling with sensitivity.

The purge of malpractices has to come from within, as no real judicial reform can be enforced from outside. It’s a case of judges judging in their own cause. The judiciary needs to overhaul and regulate itself, as none other is empowered to do this under the constitutional architecture as interpreted by apex court.

The judiciary is set on a higher pedestal by society, regardless of apparent aberrations. The entertaining of frivolous public interest litigations, for example, is nothing but a trivialization of the justice system, even if it assures it the limelight. Valuable time may be better spent on tackling the mounting case pendency. It is also time to make genuine procedural changes to discourage the prioritization of a few high-profile cases, fix timelines for submissions by litigants, bring in IT-based automation, have petitions registered online (which could be followed by authenticated copy presentations at the hearing stage), and upload digitally-signed copies of every court order. It is equally essential to impose punitive measures on those who indulge in frivolous litigations, document-faking, perjury, contempt of court, and the like. Perhaps, simple but far-reaching reforms can be done administratively and through judicial orders by the apex court. Such “judicial activism" is most welcome.

Taradatt is a former IAS officer

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