India’s long wait for justice
ASHISH Kumar last saw his brother Vinod when he was being driven away by a senior police officer in Ludhiana, in northern India. Vinod’s body was never found but the CBI, India’s intelligence agency believes that the officer, Sumedh Singh Saini, was responsible for his death. They filed murder charges against him within a month. That was in 1994. Twenty-two years have passed since the murder case began. Only three of 36 witnesses have been heard so far. Four witnesses have already died without being presented in court.
At 94 years old, Vinod’s mother Amar Kaur can’t hear or speak well. She doesn’t seem to understand much about life at present. But when she hears her son’s name, she yells at the top of her voice, “Insaaf!” “Justice”. Kaur, who used to go to court in a stretcher, gave her testimony in her son’s murder case when she was aged 86, 14 years after he went missing.
She asked the court several times to hear her statement sooner, fearing that she didn’t have long to live. When she was finally heard, the judge had to step down from the podium and stand next to the witness box to be able to hear her thin, fading voice. But before she could finish, he decided to break for lunch. The next available date for her to deliver her statement was a month later.
In the time that has passed since Vinod disappeared, Saini has continued in his role and was promoted to Director General of Police in Punjab. He still has charges hanging over him. Vinod’s family on the other hand, has had to leave their family home, give up their business, and move to Delhi. They claim to have been threatened on numerous occasions and moved in order to remain safe and follow the case. Vinod’s murder case is not exceptional in India.
More than 22 million cases are currently pending in India’s district courts. 6 million of those have lasted longer than five years. Another 4.5 million are waiting to be heard in the high courts and more than 60,000 in the Supreme Court, according to the most recently available government data. These figures are increasing according to decennial reports.
Last week, Chief Justice of India’s supreme court, Tirath Singh Thakur broke down while addressing the Prime Minister Narendra Modi, blaming the government for inaction over judicial delays, particularly for failing to appoint enough judges to deal with the huge backlog of pending cases. In the government’s budget for 2016, only 0.2% of the total budget was given to the Law Ministry, one of the lowest in the world. “There is a systematic problem with India’s courts,” Vinod’s younger brother Ashish says. “And because of it our family has suffered so much.”
The number of cases, however, is only a part of the problem. Take a walk through any court building in India and you’ll see long queues of people waiting outside courtrooms without any guarantee of getting a complete hearing. India has one of the world’s lowest judges to population ratios in the world, with only 13 judges per million people, compared to 50 in developed nations. As a result, judges hear scores of cases every day, which leads to a large number of adjournments, multiple judges passing cases between them, and increasingly long queues of people waiting outside courtrooms on the off chance that their case is heard. Judges are paid little compared to lawyers, which has led to a steady decline in the quality of judges.
“This country’s progress depends on a strong judicial system which can provide quick justice in commercial matters,” says Dushyant Dave, a senior advocate in the Supreme Court, who has seen the judicial system deteriorate since he began practicing in 1978. “We need foreign investment to improve technology and capital. If we’re not able to protect technology in terms of intellectual property rights, and if we’re going to drag investors into our court system for several decades, then they’re not going to come. “We have more than 700 million people living in poverty, and this is the greatest challenge of our democracy. The judiciary has a great role to play. Unfortunately I don’t think the judiciary really realises that.”