Courtrooms & convictions: how the Indian Judiciary is failing its people

The incident

February 21, 1985

A stark reminder of India’s deteriorating judiciary: Raja Man Singh was an Indian politician, and had been involved in an altercation at a political rally. He had seen Bijendra Singh, his opponent in Deeg district of Rajasthan for the upcoming Rajasthan Assembly elections, insult the flag of Bharatpur, the kingdom Raja’s brother was the last ruler of. Filled with anger, he rammed his jeep into the stage set up for the Chief Minister’s rally. Later, he drove a jeep into the helicopter meant for transporting the Chief Minister. 

Following this, he was on his way to the police station to surrender, along with two of his aides, when the three of them were fired upon the police. The three of them died in the car. This encounter followed the conundrum which took place the previous day. 

July 21, 2020 (35 years later)

A sessions court in Mathura convicted 11 policemen involved in the murder of Raja Man Singh, the then titular head of the erstwhile princely state of Bharatpur, Rajasthan. The incident caused political tremors in Rajasthan and the resignation of the then Chief Minister. The trial had already started in a Jaipur court, when the royal’s daughter Krishnendra Kaur filed a plea for the case to be transferred out of state, citing corruption.

Why did she have to wait 35 years?

The Indian Judicial System

The Indian Judiciary follows the common law system (judge-made law), something that it inherited from its former colonial master, Britain. However, while the UK’s constitution remains uncodified, India’s constitution is codified. Moreover, India’s constitution is the lengthiest in the world. It contains 444 articles, written in 22 parts, 12 schedules and 124 amendments.

The Supreme Court is the apex and the last appellate (appeals) court in India. It is headed by the Chief Justice of India, who is appointed by the President. The High Courts are present in each state. They are controlled and managed by their Chief Justices and are the highest courts of appeal in their respective states. There are District courts as well, controlled by District judges. Furthermore, local courts and revenue courts present in each city. 

The independence of the judiciary remains an important aspect of the constitution; being the sole protector of the constitution, it is immune to any breach of independence caused by the legislature. It also holds the power of judicial review. 

The Jury system, which came to India with the British, did not find much place in the Indian Judiciary after independence. However, the entire idea was abolished in the 1960s, after the acquittal of the Naval Commander K.M. Nanavati, who killed his wife’s lover in rage and agitation, by a jury in Maharashtra. The jury had declared him not guilty under pressure. This was the famous case of K.M. Nanavati vs The State of Maharashtra. It was the last case ever to be tried under the Jury system in India. 

A plethora of problems in the judiciary

As of the 30th of July, there are a total of 9,259,478 civil cases and 24,281,241 criminal cases pending in the district and local courts of the country. 85,815 of the total number of cases in the subordinate courts have been pending for more than 30 years. Of all the cases,14.5% have been pending for between five to ten years, 6.89% have been pending for 10-20 years, and 1.25% have been pending for 20-30 years. In the high courts, there are 4,527,657 pending cases. Two percent of the cases have been pending for 30 years or more. 15.5% and 2.1% of the cases have been waiting for disposal for 10-20 and 20-30 years respectively.

Pendency of cases in the Indian Judiciary is alarming. It has increased in all courts over the years. As of July 1, 2020, there are 60,444 pending matters in the Supreme Court. In 2006, the number stood around 40,000. 

The disposal rate of cases stands between 55% and 59% in the Supreme Court, 28% in high courts, and 40% in local courts. The number has mostly increased in all of them.

25% of all the cases filed in the HCs stay stretched for as long as 10 years. Around 50% of the cases stretched for 2-10 years. The pendency is the highest in Allahabad High Court among all the HCs. 

India’s oldest pending civil case dates back to the year 1956 in the Rajasthan High Court. In the second place stands a civil case pending since 1958, followed by a civil case in Orissa High court which has been pending since 1961. As far as criminal cases are concerned, Jammu and Kashmir high courts stand first at the backlog. Here, a criminal case has been waiting for disposal since 1976. 

The oldest criminal case pending in the Supreme Court dates back to the year 1991.

One of the most gruesome crimes that the country witnessed happened in the year 2012, when 23-year-old Jyoti Singh was beaten, tortured, and gang-raped in a bus and then, was thrown on the street. She died a few days later. What is as disturbing as the incident itself is it took almost eight years for her to get the justice she deserved. Her rapists were sentenced to death only after numerous calls for action from throughout the country.

Fast-track courts were set up for quick trials for grave and serious crimes such as rape. However, it has been noticed that trials in these courts take considerably longer to be disposed of than in regular courts. These courts are not sufficiently quipped, are understaffed, and lack proper infrastructure. 

Moreover, due to the rising number of cases reported each year, the number of undertrials is almost double the number of convicts in many of the states. 

In part, this issue is exacerbated by the fact that India has only 20 judges for every 1 million people. The subordinate courts have a shortage of about 6000 judicial officers. In the high courts, only half of the required positions have been filled. 

The reason for this is – an extremely mismanaged process of recruitment of judges at the lower courts. While the Supreme Court follows the ‘collegium system’ for the appointment of judges in it, the subordinate courts follow the system of examinations and interviews for recruiting their judges. These examinations are the Judicial Services Examinations, conducted by the respective states for their courts. So far, it has been noted that very few of the candidates who sit for the examinations actually pass it. This suggests a lack of skill and knowledge – in those who give these exams – that is generally required to become a judge. The officers and clerks, who assist these judges, also seem to be understaffed. 

Day after day, judges get accused of hypocrisy, sexual harassment, and corruption by their colleagues. The justice system is riddled with malpractices and imperfections.

In 2011, Soumitra Sen became the first judge ever to be successfully impeached by the Rajya Sabha. He was the justice of Calcutta High Court when he was accused of misappropriating funds. There are several other cases of premature bailment, acquittals, bribery, and misappropriation, which prove that corruption has penetrated the Indian Judiciary. Such acts prove that the so-called ‘independent judiciary’ is not so independent after all. 

The lack of diversity remains an ongoing problem as well. A study states that only around 9% of all the judges in the Supreme Court are women, and this figure stands at 10% in the High Courts. Communal diversity also seems to be minimal.

Furthermore, a lack of transparency is the issue that has started concerning the Indian masses in recent times. The information on the appointment of judges, the formation of benches, and ownership of assets largely remain inaccessible to the stakeholders or the common masses. This is a breach of the Right To Information and the courts do not seem to be noticing.

Where are the reforms?

The rigid hierarchical pyramid structure of the courts needs to be eradicated. The huge distinction and differences lead the judges of different levels to lock horns with each other. More often than not, there is a power struggle, an extreme sense of ego, and a lack of respect between them. This just jeopardises the whole system and the lack of understanding means cases will take longer to be disposed of. And who turns out to be the victim? The common man.

The system will benefit greatly by appointing more judges, judicial officers, and clerks at the various court levels, since the disposal of cases depends not only on the efficient working of justices, but also their clerks, and other officers. There are fewer and fewer lawyers each year who choose to become judges. The reason behind this is the meagre salary and perks given to local and district court judges by the states. Since the possibility of becoming a high court or Supreme Court judge in one lifetime is very low and as mentioned, salary in lower courts is minimal, very few people choose to adopt it as a profession.

In those who do, very few succeed. There is a lack of professional instructions and teaching about law as a subject. The students could benefit greatly if they are at least introduced to the opportunities in the law sector and urged to join the judicial services.

Since the litigants and plaintiffs come from all walks of life, from all communities and backgrounds to seek justice, there is a need for adequate appointments from all castes, genders, backgrounds, sexual orientations, and communities. More women need to be appointed as judges. 

There is a grave need for reformation in the infrastructure of Indian courts. Even today, many courts use the manual filing system. Filing departments are seen with stacked case files reaching to the rooftop, and dingy courtrooms that are extremely uninviting. The time does not seem to be close when all the courts in India will use the digital or e-filing system. Hours of manpower will be saved and cases will be disposed of at a faster pace. Records of cases will be accessible and all the courts will easily share information. 

Democracy is at peril when the judiciary cannot redress the common man.

Every Indian’s worst fear is perhaps being challenged in court. One barely sees or hears about court cases around him. Still, some disputes which cannot be solved bilaterally do end up in court and take as long as 20 years to be disposed of. Those unending court dates and long-running trials scare an Indian to her core. 

Such problems penetrate the judiciary to its core. A poor and illiterate plaintiff is more susceptible to be exploited and cheated in court. Other people avoid court matters altogether. Still, despite this low percentage of people filing cases, the number of cases filed is very high due to the huge population size of India.

Justice does not – and must not – discriminate. In the court of law, one isn’t rich or poor, literate or illiterate, privileged or unprivileged. Then, why does the judiciary fail to maintain a person’s faith in it? Where else will the common man go?

The question remains – is it fair? This problem is one of the reasons why there are so few rape cases filed compared to the actual number of rapes in India. This is why a poor man does not approach a court when he faces injustice in society. Then, what is the use of the judiciary, if many people cannot get the justice they deserve?

One cannot help but pity the families of the ones who face heinous crimes such as rapes and murders and who spend years fighting and waiting, so desperately, for redressal. This is why one will only pity Jyoti Singh and her family that waited eight years and the daughter of Raja Man Singh, who waited 35 years to be given justice.