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  • The state of justice

    Among the causes for popular dissatisfaction with delivery of justice, there are some attributable to the judicial machinery and its management, for which the judges, the lawyers and the court administrators are themselves responsible . Of course, there are many other causes traceable outside the justice system for which the laws, the Government and the litigant public must own responsibility. Assuming that internal changes are easier to accomplish and they would, in turn, provide the fillip for external support for reforming the system, it is proposed to discuss here some priority steps which those in control of the judicial machinery would be well advised to undertake in the immediate future. Most of these steps have been suggested time and again by judges themselves, though the leadership was not forthcoming to implement the measures necessary. The result has been a steady deterioration in standards of judicial performance and unprecedented accumulation of over 30 million cases clogging the system for the last nearly a decade.

    The fact that judicial will and effort can bring about substantial change in the delivery of justice has been amply demonstrated by the recent experience of the Supreme Court where, within a short period of less than three years, the pendency was brought down from well over a lakh of cases to just around 20,000 only. Today it is reported that the annual disposal rate is a little above the rate of fresh filing which promises a future of zero pendency in the Apex Court in the not-too-distant a future.

    A planned and coordinated effort to shake-up the system and put the judicial house in order has not been made despite availability of several reports of the Judiciary and the Government. The tendency has been to blame the Governments at the Central and the State levels for not making timely appointments, not providing adequate resources and not increasing the number of courts and judges. Of course, these are valid reasons for delay and arrears; but they are not the only reasons or the major causes. The judicial system is in bad shape today because of poor management of resources and a continuing reluctance to do what can be done within the existing framework. It should be said at the same time that there have been many outstanding judges and Chief Justices who performed well and sustained the system from total collapse. But they have been unable to change the style of judicial administration, motivate their colleagues down the line and give leadership and direction for higher productivity and accountability. When public systems do not change, there is always pressure from outside to force changes and that may not always be pleasant so far as the Judiciary is concerned. Hence, in the interest of judicial independence and accountability, it is imperative that judges at all levels put their heads together and initiate change for improving the state of justice and redeeming lost credibility and popular support.

    It is unnecessary to describe the picture one sees in and around lower courts in the country. To say the least, it is indeed depressing and far different from text-book perceptions of justice. Qualities of fairness, efficiency, trust, credibility and service are not evident in the way the system operates. On the other hand, evidence of indifference, lack of sensitivity to human suffering, open exploitation by intermediaries, invitation to corruption and an impression that the judicial system exists for lawyers and judges is what is conveyed from the so-called "temples of justice"! Who is responsible? The immediate response from everyone in the system is to put the blame on the Government and perhaps also, on the litigant public. Without denying the charge, one can argue that lawyers and judges are equally to blame. If they wanted to set things right, in spite of Governments' apathy, a lot could have been done to bring some order and discipline. This is what work culture is all about.

    Judicial activism is successfully employed by the Apex Court to improve the conditions of service of judges. What the public expects is the extension of activism in quicker disposals and in improvement of quality of services. This is not entirely a matter of lack of resources and infrastructure. It is to a large extent, a matter of attitudes and work ethic. Colonial practices still linger in judicial administration. Is it too much to seek a substantial increase in the number of working days and working hours for courts at all levels? Is the existing set of indicators for assessing judicial performance appropriate for establishing competence and accountability? Is it difficult to curb the level of corruption if the judges send the right signals and occasionally monitor the situation? Is there a fair system of redress of public grievances in courts and tribunals? Are judges sensitive to the problems of women victims and witnesses appearing before them? Do they respond appropriately to cultural sensibilities of minorities and weaker sections? Do they keep punctuality and respect the value of time of themselves and of others visiting courts on their summons? All these are issues of work culture and commitment to public service for improvement of which they themselves have to act.

    Quality of justice largely depends on the quality of judges. Only a competent judge can control the members of the bar appearing before him/her and direct the course of proceedings according to the demands of each case. Of course, there are not enough competent lawyers aspiring to get into the judiciary. Even if there are, the processes of selection are so uncertain and time-consuming that merit does not get adequate recognition. Therefore, people who seek appointments at the lowest level of the judicial hierarchy are not the best available for such positions. It is doubtful whether even after judges took complete control of selection to the higher judiciary, the really meritorious find their way into the High Courts. The whole process is not transparent enough to enable debate in public about its strengths and weaknesses.

    No one can deny that courts which exercise enormous powers and enjoy a lot of independence in their functioning, should get persons of sterling qualities and strong sense of public service. The report of the First National Judicial Pay Commission set up following judgment in the all India Judges' Association case has many valuable recommendations to reform the process of selection and training. Similarly, the proposal to set up a National Judicial Services Commission for dealing with selection, discipline and other matters relating to the Union Judiciary deserves to be examined for attracting the best minds into judicial office.

    Deficiencies in selection are supposed to be rectified by intensive and individualised training programmes. Unfortunately, what obtains on the ground in the name of judicial training is more a formality than a process of judge-making. Many High Courts do not have even an organised programme of training except a period of work as an understudy with a senior judge. In other places it is a repeat of what they ought to have studied in law college or in legal practice.

    Knowledgeable people, particularly from the Bar, say that for much of the problems in delivery of justice, judges are responsible and the reason is their relative incompetence. This is a matter for which neither Governments nor society can be blamed. The earlier judges realise it and respond with the urgency it deserves, the better it is for themselves and for administration of justice.

    Source: The Hindu, Jan. 25, 2001

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