After a pandemic year that severely disrupted the functioning of courts, the next Chief Justice of India NV Ramana will take charge amid great challenges. Increased case backlogs, struggles of lower courts to adapt to new technological paradigms, a vexing standoff between Union government and SC over judicial appointments, and pending constitutional bench matters fundamental to citizens demand prioritisation. Inaugurating a new HC building in Goa last week, Justice Ramana had indeed highlighted the need for modernising judicial infrastructure.
The pandemic couldn’t have struck at a more inopportune time. In four months of 2019, India’s lower courts had disposed of more cases than were instituted, giving a glimpse of latent potential if critical inputs like improving litigational procedures, filling judicial vacancies, upgrading courtroom infrastructure, hiring trained support staff and a systemic push to reduce pendency get going. But 2020 was a setback. Both fresh and disposed cases declined from 2019, yet the fall in case disposal was steeper, swelling pendency by nearly 50 lakh cases to 4 crore cases. HCs have 57 lakh cases pending and SC 67,000 cases.
Victims of criminal cases, undertrial prisoners, civil litigants and the economy at large bear the brunt of this dysfunction. Ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi admitted as much, remarking that people regret their decision to approach courts. Justice Ramana’s challenge is to work closely with Union law ministry, HC chief justices and state governments to pilot the necessary reforms. Streamlining of modular processes consuming the most judicial time must happen in right earnest. However, ongoing blame games between Centre and SC over apportioning responsibility for delaying judicial appointments risk missing this bigger picture. These disagreements hinder the filling of 411 vacancies, forcing HCs to manage with a working strength of 669 judges.
The last appointment to SC was in September 2019; since then vacancies have risen to five and just one serving SC woman judge remains. In a country where 48% of the population are women, this gender skew in the apex institution dispensing justice must be proactively redressed. SC’s views on pressing contemporary issues like CAA and interfaith marriage laws enacted by multiple states are also keenly awaited. As the saying goes, don’t waste a good crisis. A silver lining has been greater acceptance and adoption of technology. In the same spirit as Centre’s pandemic-induced economic reforms, all stakeholders must unite to change perceptions of a “ramshackle” judiciary.
This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.
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