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Clearing of Backlog Cases

Context

  • In a recent notice, the Supreme Court announced a list of 25 of the 53 Constitution Bench cases that will be heard.
  • The notice is a strong indication that the Court is serious about reducing its massive legal backlog.
  • The recent developments have come as a pleasant surprise, as the court had been roundly chastised for its selective method of listing, which was seen as an institutional failure.

Relevance

GS Paper 2: Important Constitutional Bodies.

Mains Question

Courts are sitting on a ticking time bomb, and strengthening the Indian judiciary has never been more important. Discuss. (150 Words)


Background

  • It is alleged that India’s Supreme Court has gradually devolved into an ordinary appellate forum, far from the high constitutional authority that it was intended to be.
  • However, in a country that will soon overtake China at the top of the population tables, it appears difficult to limit the Supreme Court to constitutional issues.

Backlog cases’ magnanimity

  • Cases pending in the Supreme Court: The Supreme Court currently has over 71,411 cases pending, with a paltry (meagre) batch of 53 Constitution Bench cases (where at least five judges sit together to answer important questions on the Constitution).
    • Additionally, Article 136 of the Constitution allows anyone to file a challenge to the Supreme Court against any order or judgement of any court, which is one of the reasons for the increasing number of cases in the Supreme Court.
    • In India, there is one judge for every 73,000 people. In comparison, the United States has one judge for every 13,000 people.
  • Recent verdicts: In the last five years, such benches have issued rulings on Aadhaar, privacy, reservations, judicial appointments, temple entry, governor powers, and land acquisition.
    • However, these have been prioritised for hearing over cases that have been pending for decades.

Causes of Delay and backlog

  • Persistent Vacancies: Across India, there are vacancies against even the sanctioned strengths of courts, with vacancies exceeding 30% in the worst-performing states.
  • As a result, the average waiting period for a trial in lower courts is around 10 years, and 2-5 years in higher courts.
  • Poor State of the Subordinate Judiciary: District courts across the country suffer from inadequate infrastructure and poor working conditions, which must be drastically improved if they are to meet the higher judiciary’s digital expectations.
  • In addition, there is a huge digital divide between courts, practitioners, and clients in major cities and those outside.
  • It will take years to overcome the obstacles of ageing infrastructure and digital illiteracy.
  • The Government is the Biggest Litigant: Poorly drafted orders have resulted in contested tax revenues totaling 4.7% of GDP, and this figure is rising.
  • Crowding out investment: Around Rs 50,000 crore is trapped in stalled projects, and investments are declining.
  • Both of these issues have arisen as a result of injunctions and stay orders granted by the courts, primarily as a result of poorly drafted and poorly reasoned orders.
  • Less budgetary allocation: The judiciary’s budget ranges between 0.08 and 0.09 percent of GDP. Only four countries, Japan, Norway, Australia, and Iceland, have a lower budget allocation and do not face pendency issues like India.

Few constitutional cases are pending in the Supreme Court.

  • Election Commissioners: Unlike most other entities, such as the Director CBI, the CVC, and the judges, who are appointed by broad-based committees or recommended by Collegia, the selection of Election Commissioners is entirely up to the government.
    • The Supreme Court is hearing a petition to reform the way members of the Election Commission of India are appointed.
  • Constitutional Amendment No. 103: Following the Indira Sawhney decision in 1993, which allowed OBC reservations in jobs and education but rejected the use of economic stratification for such quotas, the Constitution was amended in 2019 to allow for a maximum of 10% for economically disadvantaged groups (EWS).
  • Demonetisation case: Among policy decisions, demonetisation has been by far one of the most contentious in recent Indian history, and its legality will be examined.
    • Because the Supreme Court had directed that no petitions be heard by any high court, all orders were solicited (requested) at the apex court.
  • Reservation: The Andhra Pradesh quota for Muslims, as well as Sikhs’ right to minority status in Punjab, are also in play, and could result in a complete rethinking of political strategy in these states.
  • Minority-related cases: In the coming months, the Supreme Court will hear a slew of cases involving minorities and religious freedom. For example, consider the Dawoodi Bohra process of excommunication and the practise of Nikah Halala.
  • Regarding excommunication: The Maharashtra Prohibition of People from Social Boycott (Prevention, Prohibition, and Redressal) Bill, 2016, makes social boycott, or excommunication, a crime punishable by jail time and a fine.
    • The community’s then spiritual leader, the 51st Syedna, petitioned against the law, claiming that it violated his fundamental constitutional rights.

Conclusion

  • Justice Lalit has a better understanding of how the Court works because he has previously served as both a solicitor and a Senior Advocate of the Court than many who have come from lower courts and tried to understand how the top court works.
  • One can only hope that the implementation of strict deadlines becomes the new normal. It is customary for practises to change with each new Chief Justice, but a categorical declaration of intent should last far beyond Justice Lalit’s tenure. This would be a fitting legacy for a country well served.

The Way Forward

  • Increasing the Strength of the Judicial System: One solution is to significantly increase the strength of the judicial system by appointing more judges at the subordinate level — improvements must begin at the bottom of the pyramid.
  • Strengthening the subordinate judiciary also entails providing administrative and technical support as well as opportunities for advancement, development, and training.
  • Institutionalizing the All-India Judicial Service can be a positive step.
  • Appropriate Budgeting: The appointments and improvements will necessitate substantial but absolutely necessary expenditure.
  • The Fifteenth Finance Commission’s recommendations and the India Justice Report 2020 have both raised the issue and suggested ways to earmark and deploy funds.
  • Hibernating Unnecessary PILs: The Supreme Court should order the dismissal of all ‘hibernating’ PILs – those pending for more than ten years before HCs – if they do not involve a significant public policy or legal issue.
  • Correcting Historical Inequalities: Judiciary reform should include addressing social inequalities within the judiciary.
  • Women judges, as well as judges from historically marginalised castes and classes, must be given a fair share of the table.
  • Promoting Alternative Dispute Resolution: It should be mandated that all commercial litigation be heard only if the petitioner provides an affidavit stating that mediation and conciliation have been attempted and failed.
  • ADR (Alternate Dispute Resolution), Lok Adalats, and Gram Nyayalayas should be used effectively.

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September 2022
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