The Indian Judicial system is in urgent need of reforms if we are to continue to strengthen our society that lives within a framework of fair justice for all. India has the dubious distinction of having the world’s largest number of pending cases, which by some estimates, exceeds 30 million. The sheer time taken in bringing closure to a case often results is an accused spending a significant part of his life in jail. The issue is not whether he is ultimately found guilty or not, but the time taken to pronounce the final verdict often mounts to denying justice to both the victim and the accused.
Here are some famous cases that have seen extended periods of trial where the victims have felt a strong sense of denial of justice.
Uphaar Cinema Fire Case
The most glaring and recent example is the Uphaar cinema verdict that came after 18 years! On 13 June 1997, 59 persons lost their lives and over 100 were injured in a fire that broke out in the cinema hall during a film screening. After winding its way through years of trial, the Supreme Court finally pronounced its verdict on compensation to the victims. In a move that surprised everyone, the Supreme Court announced that the Ansal brothers, Gopal and Sushil, needn’t serve jail sentence and fined them Rs. 60 crore, which was to be paid to the Delhi government. It took 18 years of waiting only to find the people responsible go scot free. Where is the justice for the 59 dead and 100 injured?
Bhopal Gas Tragedy Case
On the night of December 2-3, 1984, there was a major leak of Methyl Isocyanate (MIC) gas in the Union Carbide Factory in Bhopal. Over five lakh people were affected by the deadly chemical, while 3,787 people (official version) died although the unofficial version puts the number over 16,000. According to a report appearing in Mother Jones in 2014, there are over 1.2 lakh people still suffering from the aftereffects of exposure to the deadly gas. The case dragged on for several years. The Chairman of Union Carbide was never prosecuted, seven employees of the company were sentenced to two years in jail and the company itself got away with paying $470 million compensation. Several victims remain without any compensation being paid after all these years.
1984 Anti-Sikh Riots Case
In a brutal and horrific response to Indira Gandhi’s assassination on the morning of 31 October 1984, general public and supporters of the Congress party in Delhi unleashed violence against the Sikh community. Soon the violence spread to several other parts of India. In all, 2,800 deaths were reported (though this number is contested), of which Delhi alone accounted for 2,100 deaths. After all these years, most of the accused remain free and till date, victims are still to get justice while many are yet to receive compensation.
These are just a few high profile cases. But what about the millions who are still going through the grind and cost of the backbreaking judicial system with very little hope for justice? Why is the Indian judicial system not able to keep pace with the dramatic increase in the number of litigation?
Here are some of the major problem areas:
Inadequate Number of Judges
Till 2013, India had one judge per one million; now compare this with 125 judges per one million in the United States. This reflects how overburdened the legal system is in India, which cascades into extended periods before the final disposal of cases. The government needs to fast track judicial reforms and the process of appointing judges needs to be sped up on priority.
More Fast Track Courts Needed
There is an urgent need to expand the number of fast track courts and extend these to the district level. There are a large number of cases that can be resolved quickly provided they are addressed in a short period. By disposing off cases faster, the regular courts will be relieved of pressure to a large extent, as many of these block other more complex cases from early resolution.
Another feature needed is the expansion of mobile courts. This will help take the process of law into the interiors and actually to people’s doorsteps. Today, poor people from rural areas have to travel to the district or state capital to attend their ongoing legal cases. The extensive use of mobile courts will go a long way in easing people’s burden.
More Lok Adalats Needed
The concept of a Lok Adalat has been welcomed by a large section of litigants who were caught up in the long and complex judicial process. Lok Adalats have been a very successful model in resolving civil cases especially those falling under the Negotiable Instruments Acts.
For instance, in 2013, in Madhya Pradesh, Lok Adalats were able to settle 27 lakh cases in a single day! Obviously, this does look a viable option to reduce pressure on regular courts, but it also raises a question on the ‘quality’ of justice handed out. The problem in India is not just the number of judges, but also the quality of judges that needs upgradation. Retired judges to be re-appointed to head Lok Adalats and they could contribute significantly in reducing the pressure.
Remove Archaic Laws and Plug Loopholes in Existing Ones
The present government has taken up this issue by revisiting several laws that have lost their relevance in contemporary India. Many of these were laid out under the British rule and continue to be a reason for misuse.
Another aspect that needs urgent attention is to plug loopholes in existing laws that are used to the fullest by successful and highly paid lawyers to defend the rich. A large section of people do not have access to this and often end up poorer and remain denied of justice. Several high profile cases involving celebrities in drinking and driving cases are a good example of this, where their lawyers have used every trick in the legal book and have taken full advantage of shoddy investigation by a poorly trained police force and further compounded by below par legal services.
Use of Technology to Improve Transparency and Reduce Corruption
There is endemic corruption, especially in the lower courts where money changes hands at every level of the judicial process. Most of this can be addressed through the use of technology and making most of the system transparent. Unfortunately, most of our courts operate in silos and are not connected to the state or national grid. If this were to be implemented, people from various parts of a state could get visibility and a lot of services and information could be availed without having to travel great distances to access information.
Also, through extensive use of video conferencing, the judicial process can be sped up significantly and result in significant savings for the exchequer. The recent killing of two Undertrials by five other Undertrials during transit to the courts could well have been avoided with the use of video conferencing.
Better Training of Support Staff and Investigating Agencies
The quality of support staff, especially in lower courts, needs to be improved through better training. This has to be accompanied by superior training to investigating agencies like the police on how the legal system works. Most people suffer from unfair judgements on account of shoddy investigation by the police. Most of the police personnel are neither aware nor properly trained on investigation process and evidence gathering that can stand up in the courts. These are fully exploited by lawyers to get their guilty clients off the hook.
Educating People on their Fundamental Rights and the Legal System
With high illiteracy still plaguing India, lack of awareness of one’s fundamental rights is one of the major reasons people are still getting exploited. This is further compounded by the complete lack of knowledge on how our legal system works. A large portion of cases involve people from rural areas who lack information on their basic rights as also legal procedures. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge is exploited by corrupt lawyers and contributes to extended periods of trial and ultimately poor delivery of justice.
With technology and multimedia, it is now possible to educate people on their rights and on where and how to seek good legal advice. In fact, a lot of legal advice can be made available online so that a large section of people can take informed decisions on legal action.
It is high time the lawmakers introduce the use of ‘simple English’ in legal application and pronouncements. The current use of complicated and outdated British English must be done away with immediately. It is ironical that the U.K. today has simplified its English in the legal system, but India continues to use a large part of the legacy language.
An Effective and Fair Legal System will result in a Stronger India
As the population continues to grow and pace of development increases, so will the number of litigations. The judicial system has to respond rapidly to ensure justice is delivered quickly and fairly to all, as ‘Justice delayed is Justice denied’.