The Union Law Minister has recently announced that the number of undertrial prisoners languishing in various jails across the country will be reduced by two-thirds within six months. Under the law, the Government has powers to release convicted prisoners after certain years of imprisonment. However, it has no such powers when the matter involves an accused undertrial. Of course, the Government can at any time withdraw any case pending in a court of law as well as deny sanction to prosecute any accused in cases where sanction is required. But convicting or freeing those under trial falls within the ambit of the judiciary.
The Government’s stated reason for freeing a large number of them is that many of those who are under trial and languishing in our prisons are in such a position because they could not get adequate legal aid. In some cases, prisoners have been behind bars for more than the maximum term of imprisonment for offences they had been charged with.
According to the Law Minister, the Chief Justices of High Courts would appoint a task force to monitor the plan. The task force, under the chairmanship of the state legal service authority or a senior judge, would depute teams to visit jails and identify prisoners who deserve to be freed. The teams would look into individual cases to identify those who were entitled to be released. The Law Minister has said, “Of the undertrials, roughly around two lakh have been in jail for several years essentially because of delays in the justice delivery system.” It appears that the Union Cabinet has approved the plan.
On the face of it, the plan seems excellent and a small step towards decongesting our prisons. According to a survey conducted and released in November, last year by the International Centre for Prison Studies, Kings College, London, in 218 countries and territories, a total of 3.73 lakh prisoners are lodged in nearly 1,336 prisons in India. As per the study, more than 9.8 million people are held in different prisons throughout the world. The study stated that the maximum number of prisoners across the globe is in the prisons of the US, which host 2.31 million prisoners. The US is followed by China (1.57 million), Russia (0.89 million) and Brazil (0.47 million).
The real problem does not lie with the courts but with the Government that knows what needs to be done to solve the problem of delay in our courts. Yet it chooses to skirt the issue.
As per the information furnished by the Law Minister to Parliament in December, 2009, a total of 3,11,39,022 cases were pending in courts across the country. The detailed break up is as follows:
Supreme Court: 52,592 pending cases
High Courts: 38,74,090 pending cases
Maximum pending cases: Allahabad High Court — 9,11,858
Pending cases in Uttar Pradeshs district and subordinate courts: 51,60,174
n Total pending cases in subordinate courts: 2,64,09,163
Strength of judiciary:
High Courts — Sanctioned: 886, Actual in position: 606
Subordinate courts — Sanctioned: 16, 685, Actual in position: 13,556
Average disposal per judge:
High Courts: 2,504 cases per year (2008)
Subordinate courts: 1,138 cases per year (2008)
According to one estimate, the number of judges required to dispose of the total pending cases promptly is 1,547 in the High Courts and 4,400 in the subordinate courts.
Addressing a gathering in Chennai in July last year, Chief Justice of India KG Balakrishnan said: “We are not able to bring it (the number of pending) cases down significantly, though we want to. Some States in the country don’t pay enough attention to the judiciary. Unless there is a large number of courts, how can the pendency come down?”
For speedy and quick disposal of cases, several committees have been formed in the past. In 1924 a committee was formed under the chairmanship of Justice Rankin. After independence, other committees constituted included the Justice SR Das Committee in 1949, Justice JC Shah Committee in 1972, the Satish Chandra Committee in 1986 and the Justice VS Mallimath Committee in 1990. But the situation from 1926 to 2010 remains virtually the same. The Law Commission, in its 120th report submitted in 1987, examined the problem of understaffing in the judiciary and recommended 50 judges per million of population instead of the present 9.5.
The inadequate number of judges is a major reason for the delays in the disposal of cases. Thus, the solution to the problem lies in the hands of the executive and administrative wings of the Government, and not the judiciary. Former Attorney-General of India Soli Sorabjee, in a lecture in London, lamented that the criminal justice system in India was on the verge of collapsing because of understaffing in the judiciary. He also observed, “Justice delayed will not only be justice denied, it will be the rule of law destroyed.”
More than 60 per cent of the pending court cases in India are due to the action or inaction of some Government official towards a citizen or a group of citizens. The same observations have been made by the Supreme Court more than once. The Arrears Committee headed by Justice VS Mallimath (1990) has identified the following causes for the accumulation of backlog of cases in the High Courts.
(i) Litigation explosion;
(ii) Accumulation of first appeal;
(iii) Inadequacy of staff attached to the High Courts;
(iv) Inordinate concentration of work in the hands of some members of the Bar;
(v) Lack of punctuality among judges;
(vi) Granting of unnecessary adjournments;
(vii) Indiscriminate closure of courts; (viii) Indiscriminate resort to writ jurisdiction;
(ix) Inadequacy of classification and granting of cases; and,
(x) Inordinate delay in the supply of certified copies of judgements and orders, etc.
The problem of court pendency, delay and quick disposal of cases is not something new. Letting off those under trial and in judicial custody is no solution. The initiative taken by the law Minister is commendable. But it doesn’t do anything to alleviate the misery of the common man seeking justice. Much bolder steps are needed. The Government must remember that unless it maintains justice, justice will not maintain us. A crisis looms large and a solution brooks no further delay.