The Supreme Court’s desire to know how a railway minister’s assassination case has dragged on for 37 years has again brought into sharp focus delays in the justice system. Legal experts blame the state of affairs on a low judge-population ratio, frequent adjournments as well as transfer of cases.
Chief Justice S.H. Kapadia, in his address on law day last month, put the figure of the pending cases in high courts and subordinate courts at 3.19 crore. Of these, 74 percent were less than five years old and the rest were pending for more than five years.
The apex court has held that astronomical delays in disposal of cases impinge upon the right of the accused to speedy trial and were violative of Article 21 and 14 of the constitution that deal with the protection of life and liberty and equality before law.
Senior counsel Ranjit Kumar blames “lack of infrastructure, woefully low judge-population ratio, frequent adjournments and the absence of deterrents against those seeking adjournment” for the delays.
The existing judge-population ratio was poor and a large number of vacancies made it worse, he said.
Of the total sanctioned strength of 895 high court judges, there were 268 vacancies. The Allahabad High Court with a sanctioned strength of 160 judges was working at half its strength with 81 vacancies, he said, quoting a Supreme Court report.
According to a Law Commission of India report, the gravity of the situation could be gauged from the Allahabad High Court where more than 8.5 lakh cases were pending. Criminal appeals of 1980-82 and criminal revisions of the year 1990-95 were still pending.
Of the 17,151 subordinate courts in the country, only 13,981 are functioning as the rest do not have judges.
The Law Commission in its 120th report recommended an increase in the strength of judges from 10.5 to 50 judges per 10 lakh population.
Former Delhi High Court judge Rupinder Singh Sodhi said: “Arrears of pending cases are mounting due to indecision – meaning judges not taking decisions promptly. This leads to adjournments and also gives an impression that the courts are not completely in control of the cases.”
It was for the judges and the prosecution to ensure that cases were tried at a reasonable pace and concluded well in time, said the former judge.
Besides the low judge-population ratio, frequent transfer of cases from one court to another also compounded delays, said Sodhi.
Making a strong case for increasing the strength of the judiciary, Sodhi said the lack of governance too was resulting in unnecessary litigation and multiplication of cases.
The long trial of the 1975 bomb attack on then railway minister Lalit Narain Mishra, has now caught the attention of the apex court, which has asked who is responsible for it.
In the last over three decades, the Mishra trial travelled to 22 different judges. During this period, 31 witnesses and four defence counsel have died.
Accused Ranjan Dwivedi was 27 years old when he allegedly threw a bomb at the dais where Mishra was addressing a public meeting in Samastipur in Bihar Jan 2, 1975. Today, he is 64 and the trial is far from over. He has now pleaded for quashing of charges and criminal proceedings.
Senior counsel M.L. Lahoty, who appeared for Dwivedi, said delay in the case was on account of the fact that after years of trial against three original accused, they were eventually discharged as investigators.
He said after the Janata Party headed by late prime minister Morarji Desai came to power, the trial was shifted from Bihar to Delhi. The recording of evidence took 10 years from 1994 to 2004 and thereafter the Central Bureau of Investigation said they wanted to bring more evidence on record.