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Jessica hint in Singh’s justice sermon

New Delhi, March 11: The Prime Minister today told a gathering of chief justices what many Indians have been saying ever since the mass acquittals in the Jessica Lal murder: that the country’s justice delivery system needs a relook.

“There is a need for all of us to reflect whether the existing procedures are adequate and foolproof; whether we are using all available provisions to prevent deviant behaviour; and whether we need new provisions in law so that the justice delivery system is seen to deliver justice,” Manmohan Singh told the conference of chief ministers and high court chief justices.

He said the way in which some cases were being dealt with, particularly where cases collapsed because of witnesses turning hostile, was beginning to worry more and more people.

Singh was echoed by the Chief Justice of India, Y.K. Sabharwal, who alluded indirectly to the Jessica Lal case. “The public outrage over the failure of the criminal justice system in some recent high-profile cases must shake us all up into the realisation that something needs to be urgently done to revamp the whole process.”

The chief justice made a stark admission: that the criminal justice delivery system seemed to be on the verge of collapse. He cited various reasons, among them a shortage of judges, and said the executive shared some of the responsibility.

He rued that “significant suggestions for separation of investigative wing from law-and-order duties and changes in rules of evidence still lie unattended”.

But the chief justice cautioned against hasty legislation, reminding the audience that lawmaking was serious business and that the state’s duty didn’t end with the enactment of a law.

The chief justice later told reporters that judges could do little about witnesses turning hostile; it’s the investigation that needed to be strengthened. Courts, he said, could not create evidence.

“The basic principles of law cannot change ' a case has to be decided on the basis of evidence on record.”

The Prime Minister, too, was worried about the delays and the huge backlog of cases and mentioned that the Constitution assured citizens speedy justice.

The government is considering raising the retirement age for high court judges, he said, and suggested the state governments consider opening more lower courts.

Singh stressed the need to tackle corruption in the judiciary. “Instances of corruption have now begun to surface in our judicial system, too. The higher judiciary must address this challenge and show the way forward to the rest of the system.”

He cautioned that “judicial activism must be used in a restrained manner” to ensure it did not obstruct the reform process.

Singh was worried at the misuse of public interest litigations, which are meant to be instruments for rectify- ing public ills. “We need to reflect whether we have reached a stage where the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, whether it has become a tool for obstruction, delay and, sometimes, harassment.”

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