Night courts take bite out of backlog

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2007, 12:00am

Evening sittings clear up 39,000 cases in 3 months

Special 'night' courts have been set up in the western state of Gujarat to help clear some of the more than 20 million cases choking the Indian legal system, which is notorious for its delays.

Civil and criminal cases often take 15 to 20 years to be settled. Divorced women wait years for maintenance, children grow into adults as their divorced parents await custody rulings, and people whose loved ones have been murdered age and die without the murderer being convicted.

The night hearings began in November. The 44 courts involved work through the evening. In three months, 39,000 cases have been disposed of.

The former chief justice of India, Y.K. Sabharwal, who launched the experiment, said if it proved successful, it would be replicated throughout India.

For the millions, such as engineer Ashok Patel, whose lives are traumatised by endless hearings and adjournments and huge lawyers' bills, the relief will be immense.

'My whole life for the past 12 years has been dominated by my wife's false charges of dowry harassment against me. Until December, only three of the seven witnesses had been examined. It could have gone on for another 12 years,' said Mr Patel, whose case has just been settled in his favour.

For poor Indians, the mental burden, time and cost of fighting a case can make them think twice about seeking justice.

The biggest advantage of the night courts is that litigants need not take time off work and lose income. Court employees, including the judges, are being paid an extra 25 per cent for working at night.

The monumental delays in civil cases are caused primarily by technical snags and lawyers' delaying tactics. In criminal cases, it is more complicated. Often the police are tardy in their investigations and late in submitting charges.

Nor are they usually trained to gather evidence scientifically. It is common for forensic evidence to be wrapped in newspaper, bound by jute thread and then produced in court. This makes it harder for judges to decide cases.

Matters are made worse by the fact that there are only about 12 judges per million Indians.

The impact of these delays is massive, affecting not just private lives but public life too.

'One reason why India hasn't been able to tackle corruption is that the corrupt know they can use their wealth to hire a good lawyer and then quibble and cavil for years and go on living normally,' said Nimal Vittal who, as the government's former Central Vigilance Commissioner, was entrusted with fighting corruption in public life.