Business Standard

Reforming judiciary

Reserving judgments adding to delays and backlogs


India’s clogged justice system has acquired global notoriety, which plays no small part in the investment decisions of multinatio­nals. On Monday, Chief Justice of India D Y Chandrachu­d sent a wakeup call to the higher judiciary by flagging the proclivity of high-court judges to reserve judgments for a long time after completing the hearing. Seeking informatio­n from chief justices on details of cases where judgments had been reserved for three months, he said he had discovered there were cases where judgments had been reserved for as long as 10 months. Worse, he noted, several judges partly heard the matters before releasing them, requiring parties to have the case heard all over again. As the chief justice pointed out, reserving a judgment for 10 months amounts to wasting judicial time since the judge concerned is unlikely to remember the oral arguments. This is not the first time the apex court has urged the high courts to speed up. In 2022, a two-judge Bench hearing a criminal case observed it was advisable for the high court concerned to deliver the judgment at the earliest after the arguments were concluded.

Reserving judgments adds to the legendary backlog of court cases in India, a symptom of the establishe­d institutio­nal problems embedded in the judicial system. The government’s records show that there are over 40 million cases pending in district and subordinat­e courts. Of those, more than 100,000 are over 30 years old. A key contributo­ry factor in these delays is the large number of vacancies on the Benches. Though the Supreme Court currently enjoys one of its rare moments of a full quorum, the high courts have 329 vacancies. No surprise, the pendency of cases in the high courts has risen over time. Given that the high courts and subordinat­e courts constitute the first line of justice in the Indian system, this state of affairs amounts to the denial of justice for the bulk of the Indian citizens. Indeed, the fear of being embroiled in long-pending court cases tends to encourage the culture of graft and corruption.

Increasing­ly fractious arguments between the executive and judiciary over judicial appointmen­ts have not helped matters. But a shortage of judges is part of the story. The entire judicial ecosystem appears to be shambolic, especially at its lowest level. By the government’s own admission, the lack of physical infrastruc­ture and support staff in courtrooms and the efficiency and capabiliti­es of investigat­ive agencies and stakeholde­rs (litigants, witnesses) to understand and follow court rules all contribute to the poor picture of the Indian judiciary. Frequent adjournmen­ts and appeals have added to the burdens of courts already weighed down by a notable expansion of central and state legislatio­n.

The consequenc­es of this can be seen in the total rejection by India’s major economic partners of the model Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) document, which requires foreign investors to exhaust all legal remedies within the Indian system before applying for arbitratio­n. The 13 years it took Vodafone to appeal its retrospect­ive tax case in Indian courts stands as a cautionary tale. Justice Chandrachu­d’s observatio­n on high-court judges’ practices points to just one element of the problem. But it offers a reminder that judicial reform should be an urgent item on the reform programme for both the Centre and states. India will soon be the third-largest economy in the world. It needs a world-class justice system to maintain sound economic, social, and political order.

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