A few recent but unconnected media reports underscore what plagues the judicial system. The ultimate sufferer is the common man who gets delayed justice, if at all. Embedded in these reports also lie some simple but effective remedies. But first, it will help to take a brief look at the factors contributing to this mess.
False claims filed with impunity (Times of India: July 4, 2021)
The Delhi High Court minced no words in expressing its exasperation at filing, with impunity, false claims and defenses by the governments.
It noted that as per the Legal Information Management and Briefing System (LIMBS) – a wing of the central government for monitoring and handling various court cases of government departments and ministries – 4,79,236 cases involving the government were pending as on June 8, 2021. The Ministry of Finance has the highest number of cases pending (1,17,808) followed by Railways with 99,030 cases.
Justice J R Midha observed that this had shaken the conscience of the court. Two main reasons lead to this sorry state of affairs: (1) no action against the concerned government officer and (2) disinclination of the courts to penalise the offenders for making false claims/defenses.
Man denied bail for case in thana that does not exist (Times of India: July 5, 2021)
The Allahabad High Court issued a show cause notice to a police officer in Uttar Pradesh after it emerged that he had falsely claimed that a man was a “dreaded criminal” who had previously been booked under the stringent Gangsters Act in a police station in Amroha district, resulting in him being denied bail for three months.
The court found that the thana — Akbarabad police station — mentioned by the Bijnor police officer did not exist!
Plea filed in SC alleging arbitrary approach of Punjab and Haryana High Court in designating “Senior Advocates” (The Indian Express: July 3, 2021)
A group of advocates have filed a writ petition before the Supreme Court challenging a notification of the Punjab & Haryana High Court designating 19 lawyers as Senior Advocates. The petitioners contend that in doing so, the High Court violated the mandatory and binding directions of the Supreme Court.
The High Court had earlier taken the decision at a Full Court meeting in exercise of the powers conferred under Section 16(2) of the Advocates Act, 1961.
The petitioners have submitted that 113 applications for the Senior Advocate designation were received. However, it was all of a sudden on May 19, 2021 that all the applicants were surprisingly called physically to High Court premises showing scant respect for the restrictions imposed on account of the COVID_19 pandemic.
It has been further alleged that the Full Court resorted to secret voting, albeit without any exceptional circumstances or recording of reasons in writing even without there being an agenda or in the absence of the bio-data, requisite material and synopsis, etc.
Consequently, the fate of many candidates including some former Advocate Generals and some who have excellent records of more than 40 years was arbitrarily, illegally and unjustifiably compromised.
Even the Supreme Court is not spared
An article dated July 6, 2021 authored by B.V. Acharya, senior advocate and former Advocate General, Karnataka, reveals that even the Supreme Court is not spared of the frivolous litigations.
The Supreme Court, in the recent decision in ‘Krishnalal & others vs. State of U.P.’ made the following observation: “The justice dispensation machinery in India is plagued with backlogs, with 70% of the pendency before the subordinate courts being on the criminal side. A significant factor in this backlog is the vast mass of frivolous litigation instituted year after year by litigants with an intent to use the courts of justice for their own mischievous ends. Curtailing such vexatious litigation is, thus, a crucial step towards a more effective justice system – a step that cannot be taken without the active involvement of the lower judiciary, especially in criminal proceedings”.
On June 1, 2021, a Bench of the Supreme Court (comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and M R Shah) lamented how nearly 95% of the cases listed before them on that day were frivolous cases and further observed that the “system [is] becoming dysfunctional due to frivolous cases, unable to hear matters of national importance”.
The mess grows bigger
False claims/defences and frivolous litigations are not the only problems faced by the courts. Add to these the issues like never-ending adjournments, orders reserved but not pronounced for inordinate periods, forum shopping, blatant violations by the subordinate judiciary of the laws settled by the superior courts, filing of unnecessary appeals/revision petitions, etc., which further chokes the system and so on.
When the lockdown was first imposed in March 2020, the Delhi High Court had specifically given directions that orders in cases wherein final arguments had been completed must be announced notwithstanding the limited functioning of the courts. Some subordinate courts complied, some didn’t.
Suggestions to stem the rot
More than four crore cases are pending in the courts at various levels. But each case is as important as human life. Timely dispensation of justice in each and every case is non-negotiable. The challenge therefore is both at the macro level as well as at the micro level.
The root cause of this gigantic problem is lack of objectivity, transparency and accountability of various players. How can it be addressed? Perhaps, some learnings can be taken from the famous words of Narayan Murthy, the founder of Infosys: “In God we believe, for everything else we need data”.
Maximum use must be made of technology, and in particular, artificial intelligence. Each case must be tagged to the litigant, judge, lawyers, point of law involved, case law citations, final decision of the court, etc. “Exception reports” generated with this data can help at various levels.
With the use of technology, habitual and frivolous litigants, both public and private, can be exposed. The rich and the powerful make it a norm to file unnecessary revisions/appeals against orders of the trial courts. Most cases are unnecessarily escalated to the Supreme Court. Recently, the Delhi HC sent out a strong message by levying fines ranging from Rs 1 lakh to 20 lakh on what it considered motivated and frivolous petitions. Hopefully, such deterrents will send the right message and avoid further choking of an already overburdened system.
Copies of the judgments can be kept in ACR files of the government officers. This should also include judgments/orders which do not entertain time-barred cases due to intentional and inordinate delay in filing of the appeals leading to the guilty going scot-free. The Supreme Court has deprecated this practice on a number of occasions. Accountability and objectivity in appraisals will increase.
It needs no emphasis that lawyers are first and foremost officers of the courts. Their prime responsibility is to help the courts to come to the right decisions.
Some of them, however, “game the system” by indulging in forum shopping, asking for multiple adjournments, making unnecessary and misleading pleadings, repeatedly raising points of law that are already well settled, filing unnecessary appeals, cherry picking from judgments, etc.
Only yesterday, the Supreme Court expressed its displeasure at the tendency of the bar to make unending submissions which results in piling of cases and leaves it with little time to settle legal principles pending before larger benches (Economic Times: July 9, 2021)
The sifting of the “dirty oranges” from the good ones will not only help accelerate the pace of delivery of justice, but the data generated from the exception reports can also be used for evaluation while granting designation of “senior advocates” and for elevation as judges in future.
A compilation of the points of law involved, relevant judgments, track record of the litigant, etc. can help judges adjudicate in a timely and correct manner to save precious time. The number of adjournments given, average time taken for disposal of cases, number of their judgments quashed by superior courts, etc. will expose the “chronic” defaulters, help understand the need for further training, and provide an objective basis for their elevations.
The above suggestions can lead to substantial improvements in justice delivery notwithstanding the highly inadequate infrastructure including 40% vacancies in the higher courts. On a lighter note, it may not hurt if moral science is made a compulsory subject in all academic curricula.
Sarvesh Mathur is a senior financial professional and has worked as CFO of Tata Telecom Ltd and PricewaterhouseCoopers in the past. Views expressed here are personal.
Also read: Madras High Court Judgment is a Harbinger of Hope for Human Rights