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International Bar Association: 80,000 Case Backlog at India's Supreme Court Impedes Justice

The Indian judiciary is facing a daunting challenge with approximately 80,000 cases languishing in the Supreme Court, creating a significant backlog. This accumulation of pending cases has profound implications for the justice system, as it hampers access to justice for those seeking legal recourse. The situation has also raised concerns about the weakening of the country's judiciary. The International Bar Association (IBA) has released a report highlighting this alarming backlog, emphasizing its detrimental effects on the justice system.

According to Nusrat Hassan, the co-chair of the IBA Asia Pacific Regional Forum's India Working Group, the severity of this issue cannot be overstated. Hassan acknowledges that delays have become a persistent problem, impeding the timely delivery of justice. The extended periods accused individuals spend in prison while awaiting trial further exacerbates the situation, raising concerns about the fairness and efficiency of the justice system.

India's Supreme Court, comprised of 34 judges, handles a vast array of appeals, ranging from workplace disputes to land disagreements, originating from district and high courts across the nation. Beyond appeals, these judges also preside over new hearings concerning government affairs. A study by the Centre for Social and Economic Progress in New Delhi highlights the dramatic increase in the court's workload over the years, mirroring India's population growth, rising literacy rates, and economic development. However, the number of judges has not kept pace with this surge in cases.

The sheer volume of cases has created a backlog that Hassan, a legal expert, describes as seemingly insurmountable. This backlog has a serious impact, leading to accused individuals being imprisoned for extended periods awaiting trial, a stark consequence of the court's inability to process cases efficiently.

William H. J. Hubbard, deputy dean at the University of Chicago Law School and research professor at the American Bar Foundation, voiced concerns over the Indian judiciary's inefficiency. He argued that its inability to efficiently handle routine cases consumes valuable time that could be dedicated to matters with wider societal implications. As an example, Hubbard cited the delayed ruling on the Aadhaar national identification card scheme, which proceeded despite outstanding privacy concerns.

Tarun Khaitan, a professor of public law at the London School of Economics, echoed these concerns, noting that delays are particularly prevalent in cases that could potentially challenge the government. A study published in the Journal of Law and Economics by Madhav S. Aney, Shubhankar Dam, and Giovanni Ko has uncovered a worrying pattern: Indian Supreme Court judges nearing retirement age (65) demonstrate a higher propensity to side with the government in their rulings. This bias, according to Sital Kalantry, founder of the Round Glass India Centre at Seattle University, stems from the government's role as a major employer of former Supreme Court judges. Kalantry stressed that the court's institutional structures and rules create a dependence on the ruling party.

The judiciary's inefficiency and potential bias raise serious concerns about its ability to effectively hold the government accountable. This issue is particularly acute in light of the significant impact that judicial decisions have on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Asif Hassan, a legal scholar, believes that investing in the judiciary's infrastructure and fostering innovative thinking could significantly improve India's judicial landscape. 'The government needs to understand that some of the largest problems in our country would be solved if the judiciary was efficient,' Hassan emphasized. He argues that efficient case resolution would reduce disputes, promote commerce, and alleviate suffering, ultimately leading to a more just and equitable society.

To tackle the growing backlog at India's Supreme Court, legal experts have proposed various reforms. Hubbard, Kalantry, and Chandra suggested raising the retirement age of judges and a more selective approach to case admissions, freeing up time for scrutinizing crucial constitutional issues. While Hubbard acknowledges the challenges in implementing immediate reforms, he believes potential solutions exist.

Improving the lower judiciary was another focus area. Ramesh Vaidyanathan, a former regional forum co-chair, highlighted the importance of continuous legal education for enhancing the lower judiciary, thereby reducing appeals reaching the Supreme Court. Khaitan echoed this sentiment, advocating for investments in skills, personnel, and infrastructure to improve the underfunded and understaffed lower courts.

Chief Justice Chandrachud has been promoting the digitization of courts to enhance their capacity. However, researcher Sandeep Bhupatiraju questioned whether digital solutions alone could guarantee justice, acknowledging their convenience but emphasizing the need for deeper reforms.

The substantial backlog in India's highest court is a pressing issue requiring comprehensive and urgent solutions to ensure timely and fair justice for all. Addressing the root causes, improving the lower judiciary, and exploring innovative approaches are crucial steps towards achieving this goal.

Reference: Backlog of 80,000 cases at India's Supreme Court impedes justice: International Bar Association, By Angelica Dino, 15 Jun 2024;

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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