Whenever there is a talk of judicial reforms the focus is invariably more on improving either the working of the Supreme Court and High Courts or the service conditions of judges in these institutions. The case of judges, munsifs and magistrates who preside over the subordinate judiciary is not taken up with the same vigour and enthusiasm. In fact, judges at the higher levels are known to be more concerned with their own well-being and betterment rather than that of their counterparts at lower levels.
After all, the judiciary is a vital organ of any democratic government and every effort should be made to make it in a real sense an effective instrument of justice. However, the term “judiciary” does not only mean apex court and high courts but it also includes the lower courts. Not only do these courts handle a majority of cases, leaving only a fraction for the higher sub-systems, these courts are the only sub-system available to an average Indian, if at all, to obtain the benefit of legislative measures and to protect his legal rights. And if so, why should these courts be deprived of much needed improvements in crucial areas?
Incidentally, this isolated streamlining venture reminds me of the words of a renowned Hindi writer, Munshi Prem Chand, the English translation of which goes as “everyone talks about the beautiful palace or the towering storeys built thereon, but the foundation lying buried deep inside on which rests the entire structure is seldom talked about”. This is equally true with our lower judiciary which, despite being the base of the entire judicial pyramid, remains invariably neglected in matters of judicial reforms.
The lower judiciary consists of trial courts and the first appellate courts of district and sessions judges. Though with limited jurisdiction, these courts represent the first tier of our judicial system. Indeed, the vast majority of poor litigants look upon them as the courts of last resort to get justice, higher courts being out of their reach for various socio-economic factors. Thus, for the common people the image of the civil and criminal justice is projected by these institutions. If these courts can be made more effective to the needs and aspirations of the people, the State will redeem one of its most important pledges - making justice available to one and all.
The conditions under which the subordinate judges work in most parts of the country are shocking indeed. In the absence of proper space, the presiding judges/magistrates or munsifs hold their courts in the crowded rooms of dilapidated, stinking and ramshackle buildings without proper lights, fans, or even easy access to potable water. A large number of courts, for example, in small cities and rural areas of the country are the living examples of such working conditions and hardly bear even a remote resemblance to temples of justice.
The service conditions of lower judicial personnel are no better. Promotional avenues are so scarce that incumbents continue to stagnate in the cadres of their initial appointment. Some of them even retire as magistrates or sub-judges after long innings of their service. All their humble protests for fair deal are not taken any cognizance of. Pay and allowances of these officials too look ridiculous in today’s context of incomes and prices. Apart from this, subordinate judges in quite a few states have no housing facilities.
Taken together, low incomes, poor infrastructural facilities, inadequate promotional avenues and continued official apathy have reduced the lower judiciary to a state of collapse. It, like other democratic institutions, has suffered losses in credibility and efficacy. One serious consequence of this apathy is that the best legal brains in the country prefer to practice law or join lucrative jobs rather than sit on the Bench.
Hence, there is an urgent need for improving the service conditions of judges at all levels so that persons with good legal background and standing at Bar and reputation for integrity and sagacity are attracted to join the judicial service.
Litigation has increased manifold with the increase in population and rising tempo of modern life in industrial, commercial and other fields, whereas the number of courts and strength of judges remain woefully inadequate to keep pace with the large inflow of cases in lower courts. The gap between the institution of suits and their disposal has increased enormously resulting in huge backlog of cases. As of now, a total of 2.76 crore cases are pending in lower courts. Accelerating the pace of disposal in the Supreme Court and High Courts will not achieve much when the fault lies at the bottom.
Modus operandi in lower courts, far from generating respect, further undermines confidence of the people in the Rule of Law. Perfunctory legal work, underhand deals by touts, adjournment seeking advocates, an apathetic police and prosecution, archaic laws and a disinterested judiciary all combine to defeat the purpose of speedy dispensation of justice to thousands of poor litigants. They wonder what is it that the law has given them except that they have wasted years in terms of time and incurred heavy financial expenditure on litigation which has landed them into a state of utter emotional and physical wreck.
We must, therefore, streamline our legal system right from the lowest level so that it can cope effectively with a worsening situation without sacrificing its well-earned reputation for justice. It is the lower judiciary to which poor people turn for the protection of their legal rights and legitimate claims.
If most of them are quickly satisfied there, a lot of appellate work in higher courts can also be reduced. But once they begin to feel that it is of little consequence to them, their faith not only in the judicial system but in democracy as a whole will erode. As understood in our country, democracy depends for its stability on a proper functioning of the legal and judicial machinery.
The writer is Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Delhi High Court.