Ademocratic country wedded to the tenets of the ‘Rule of Law’ and liberal values presupposes, among other things, the existence of an effective system of governance and justice. A liberal democratic country like India has been committed to these ideas and has accordingly been developing its institutions for realizing the basic ethos. India has definitely has come a long way since Independence; it has ensured the rule of law, more so when it is compared with many of her peers and time-twins across the world.
However, we still have miles to go before we can afford to sleep. Despite all the efforts made by the Government and the top leadership of our judiciary, we still have a mind-boggling number of pending court cases. The enormous pendency of these cases also results in delayed delivery of justice as the files pertaining to several of them have been gathering dust for years before being finally disposed of. While the backlog makes the access to justice a costly affair for the common Indian, it also goes against the grain of truth enshrined in the adage, ‘justice delayed is justice denied’.
As per a statement issued on behalf of the Union Law Ministry in June 2019, around 43.6 lakh cases were pending in various High Courts, of which over eight lakh cases have been pending for 10 years if not more. The former Chief Justice of India, Justice Deepak Mishra, has said that ‘altogether 3.3 crore cases were pending in different tiers of Indian courts in 2019’. While 2.84 crore cases were said to be pending in subordinate courts, the share of such cases were 43.6 lakh and 58,000 for the High Courts and the Supreme Court respectively. Reportedly, of all the pending court cases, 60 per cent are more than two years old, while 40 per cent are more than five years old.
According to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), the five states which account for the highest pendency of court cases include Uttar Pradesh (61.58 lakh), Maharashtra (33.22 lakh), West Bengal (17.59 lakh), Bihar (16.58 lakh) and Gujarat (16.45 lakh). While the Indian judiciary has been working on detailed action plans and measures to ensure speedier disposal of such cases, it is also quite imperative for other stakeholders to chip in with matching plans and efforts to make delivery of justice more accessible and timely. Reportedly, there are many Government departments and agencies across the country which are involved in a humongous number of litigations because of the nature of the subjects and issues dealt by them.
The number of court cases dealt by these government departments and agencies is aso higher because of the number of stakeholders and people affected and impacted by their functioning is many times more than any other agency or department. Such departments include those dealing with land, health, transport, education, police, agriculture or the ones relating to local bodies and general administration. While administration and governance in this country has definitely improved drastically ever since its inception as an independent State, still a huge number of cases are filed every day against different government agencies with some departments shouldering a bigger share of the load.
While a large number of these cases are putatively frivolous and filed with an intention to take advantage of the systemic weaknesses, including delayed disposal, most of the cases are filed with a view to elicit justice due to the slothfulness, procrastination and opaque functioning of some segments of the system of governance in the country. It has been noted with concern that many of these agencies and departments are often hobbled and handicapped by different structural and non-structural factors and weaknesses. These make it difficult for them to attend to many of the multifarious demands for government services and benefits in time, thereby attracting a build-up of litigations against them.
Such factors, inter alia, include depleted strength of requisite human and other resources for timely response. A weak administrative set-up, negligence and structural sloth are some other factors. Most of these agencies do not have the requisite number of officers and staff members to attend to all the court cases as are filed against their departments. Even where they exist, they are not suitably trained to appreciate the nuances of handling such court cases, more so when their number runs into thousands. In fact, some government departments have such a huge number of court cases filed against them that it is humanly impossible for them to attend to the same efficiently and effectively given the problems faced by them.
While handling the court cases are specialized tasks to be attended by legal experts, these are mainly dealt with by officers and staff members with little legal knowledge or perspicacity. These are the officials who not only draft the affidavits, reasoned orders, instructions to the lawyers and other court responses, but often are also the ones doing the basic clerical jobs including stenography, typing and photocopying the court documents as there are no dedicated clerical support available for the purpose. All said and done, the factors affecting the efficiency and effectiveness of these government agencies are more or less the same.
As a result, there is a pileup of a massive number of pending court cases in different tiers of our judicial system across the country. Such factors include unavailability of adequate officers and staff members trained to handle sensitive and delicate court cases, absence of basic minimum resources and logistics like vehicular support for regular movement between office, court, lawyers and other stakeholders or the unavailability of the required number of computers, printers and Xerox machines for timely printing or photocopying of soft copies of writ petitions, appeal petitions, affidavits and other documents.
Vague rules and anomalous government orders is another reason encouraging the filing of more court cases against certain government agencies and departments. Besides, unavailability of the requisite financial resources for timely payment of lawyers’ fees for defending the government in court or for doing other legal homework like drafting and filing appeal petitions or obtaining certified copies, efficient drafting of reasoned orders and affidavits, absence of efficient and knowledgeable law officers, timely briefing and instructions to lawyers and a better system of communication among all stakeholders are some of the other factors affecting the timely responses of the responding agencies.
Often, the writ petitions or the court orders are not received in time because of sundry factors, thereby delaying the response from the respondents. The latter could happen because of systemic weaknesses, but it also happens because of the deliberate collusion of some vested interests. The delayed response or disposal of cases are also the result of the delayed receipt of relevant inputs and reports from the respective stakeholders. The increasingly huge number of cases pending with certain departments or agencies also means that their timely hearing and eventual disposal are affected by the overload of the cases, thereby giving rise to a vicious cycle.
Sometimes, sundry other factors beyond the control of respondents also conspire to delay the timely or effective disposal of these court cases. Such factors could include loss of file, inability of the subordinate officials to bring the writ petitions or court orders to the notice of the superior officers or actual respondents, long absence of concerned staff or officials conversant or dealing with the matter concerned, unavoidable or prolonged preoccupation of the concerned officials with other assignments or works as directed by their superiors or simply the complexities of the issues involved in the some of the court cases.
(To be concluded)
(The writer is an IAS officer, presently posted as Commissioner of School Education, West Bengal. The views expressed are personal and don’t reflect those of the Government)