Editorial: Heavy burden
That justice delayed is justice denied is a reality with which Indians are all too familiar. A decade ago, India already had the world’s largest backlog of cases; the total has now climbed to a monumental 4.6 crore. The pandemic, predictably, has exacerbated the problem, with the number of pending cases increasing by nearly 25 per cent since last year’s lockdown. As expected, the brunt is being borne by the lowest rung of the judiciary — district and subordinate courts now account for more than four crore of these cases. This is all the more worrying since the lower courts comprise the first line of defence to secure justice for citizens. The state of infrastructure in subordinate courts is partly responsible for the glut: most lack basic facilities for litigants, judges, and staff. Digitization remains an equally intractable problem. Although 16,845 district and subordinate courts have been computerized as of 2020, the reluctance of Bar associations in several states to accept e-courts and digital hearings has compromised the efficacy of the new system. Even in state capitals where facilities such as high-speed internet and video-conferencing are available, digital court proceedings have not been fully initiated.
Another significant factor behind legal pendency is the number of judicial vacancies, especially in the lower courts — more than 5,000 seats have remained vacant over the last decade. Clearly, the problem is not merely technical. There is a need to identify the specific challenges faced at the different levels of the judiciary. Trial courts, often plagued by external — political — pressures must be further empowered. Their high caseload must be matched by necessary changes in infrastructure and bench strength, and regional committees should be convened to address local resistance against a smooth digital transition. Fortifying the lower echelons of the judiciary could ease the burden on its upper tiers.