Reforms lay down the law on court backlog

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 July, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 July, 2002, 12:00am

Paralysis in the Indian legal system is total: young women grow old and grey waiting for divorce, toddlers turn into teenagers pending custody decisions, buildings decay while property cases are heard and litigants drop dead before they get a judgment.

There are 20 million cases pending in the courts. 'I fought a case where the children grew up and got jobs before their mother got alimony,' said lawyer Ajit Panja.

But radical legal reforms are now under way to provide faster justice in civil cases. The single biggest reason for the delays is the absence of a time limit on the various stages of litigation, allowing cases to drag on for years, sometimes decades.

A classic case is that of clerks working in a police department in Orissa state. They filed a case 30 years ago demanding parity of pay with other officials. The judgment granting their demand has just been given but most of the litigants have either retired or died.

The new legislation that amends India's Civil Code Procedure is aimed at reducing delays. It dictates that all civil courts must dispose of cases within a year; limits the number of adjournments to three; allows courts to fix a time limit for arguments, and finally, requires all judgments to be delivered within 60 days of the hearing being completed.

The new laws also tackle other related delays. For example, instead of summonses being served by registered post - often taking months - they will be served by e-mail, fax or courier.

The huge backlog of cases crawling through India's crumbling judiciary is the result of a population far outstripping the number of judges available. 'Compared to one judge for a population of 5,000 in the West, India has one judge for 100,000 people,' said lawyer P. N. Lekhi.

With lawyers paid by the hour, many have turned adjournments into an art form. 'I hold judges responsible more than lawyers because they are the ones who agree to these repeated adjournments,' said Mr Panja.

For Indians fighting cases involving the death of loved ones, the delays are a torment. In the case of a 1997 fire that killed 60 people at a New Delhi cinema, the families of the victims still see no verdict in sight in their case against the cinema management.

One issue the new law does not address, however, is that apart from having far too few judges, more than 150 posts are vacant at any given moment. Former chief justice of India S. P. Bharucha said: 'The state governments are not interested. They neglect the judiciary and don't bother to fill these posts because litigants are not a vote bank they feel they need to cater to.'

The only anxiety felt by supporters of these ambitious legal reforms is that the man behind them is no longer law minister. Arun Jaitley was recently made the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party's spokesman.

His successor Jana Khrishnamurthy faces a daunting task. Mr Jaitley told a seminar that change was urgently needed. 'You commit a crime and there is a 93.5 per cent possibility that you'll get away with it,' he said.