In 2014, the new year for the district courts of Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana started with a kind of ‘pull your socks up’ order. The then Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court SK Kaul had asked all the district courts to expedite the disposal of long pending cases.
The high court asked all the district courts in the state to ensure that all cases which have been pending for more than ten years be decided till 31 March and all the cases which have been pending for the last five years be disposed of by 31 July.
The result was magical. The number of long pending cases was decided in no time.
The annual report of Punjab and Haryana high court 2014, states, “A special drive was run to reduce the pendency of cases which are more than 20 years old & 15 years old as on 31.12.2013 (except stayed cases) by 31.3.2014 positively & all the pending cases which are more than 10 years old & 05 years old as on 31.12.2013 (except stayed cases) by 31.7.2014 positively, vide this Court's letter No. 45 spl. Gaz.II(9/10), dated 21.01.2014.”
This was not for the first time that the courts had swept into action following a clear directive from the high court. Annual report of Punjab and Haryana high court, 2012, also makes similar revelations.
It states, “There were 212 twenty year old civil and criminal cases pending in various courts in the States of Punjab, Haryana and UT, Chandigarh as on 31.08.2012. A special drive was launched to dispose off all such cases in a time bound manner. Resultantly, till 31.12.2012, there was substantial decrease of 66 cases and total pendency of such cases has been reduced to 146”.
It adds that number of cases relating to heinous crime against women as on 31 October, 2012 stood at 1801. According to the report, instructions were issued to expedite the trial of such cases even by conducting day-to-day proceedings.
Quite magnificently, again, 367 cases were disposed of by 31 December, 2012. “In certain cases, even trial court judges concluded trials within a short span of 3 to 7 days”, the report states.
While the shortage of judicial officers has been touted as one the most important reasons for the huge pendency of cases, the fact that lower courts can decide serious matters like crime against women in a span of ‘3 to 7 days’ while working under 'directives', poses an important question.
Can the huge pendency be just because of lesser number of judges? If so, how does the sudden and swift disposal of long pending cases as in the case of Chandigarh, Punjab and Haryana be explained.
On Tuesday, as reported by The Hindu, Law Commission of India Chairman and former Supreme Court judge Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan had said that the approved strength of judges are enough to end backlog, an assertion totally different from that of Chief Justice of India (CJI) TS Thakur, who has time and again highlighted the lack of required number of judges as important reasons for pendency.
As quoted by The Hindu, Justice Balbir Singh Chauhan remarked, “Increasing the sanctioned strength of judges will not solve the problem. We need working judges. Liberty has become more important. Workload has increased because of an increase in awareness among the public and education. There has been an expansion of liberty and courts are bound by the public’s faith in the judiciary”.
Currently, there are 480 judges serving at various high courts in the country as against the sanctioned strength of 1079 judges. Also, the Supreme Court itself has three vacancies in the total sanctioned strength of 31 judges.
CJI has time and again called for expediting the appointments to higher judiciary because according to him, the delay in appointment is hampering the judicial process.
According to a report by Indiaspend, published in Firstpost in April, more than 20 million cases pending in the Indian districts courts; two-thirds are criminal cases and one in 10 have been pending for more than 10 years.
The Indian Express reported that according to statistics provided by the Supreme Court’s E-Committee on pending cases in district courts there are more than 2.18 crore cases pending in district courts across the country. In 12 states more than 5 lakh cases are pending for disposal.
The report further stated that data, as of 30 April, highlights the glaring problem of the huge pendency across states and Union territories. Over 2.18 crore cases remain pending, of which more than 22.5 lakh cases have failed to be decided in the last 10 years – 10.3 percent of the total pendency.
It also stated that , "Around 38.3 lakh cases are pending for more than five years but less than 10 years – 17.5 percent of the total number of cases. Therefore, more than one-fourth of cases pending across district courts in the country are pending for at least five years. And 29.5 per cent of total cases, or 64.5 lakh cases, have been pending for more than two years."
Visiting any of the district courts in the country highlights some other problems that may lead to pendency, apart from just shortage of judges. Among them the most important one, which is also often ignored, are shortage of administrative staff in the courts, lack of infrastructure, inefficiency of investigating agencies in probing the cases, that includes providing evidence and witnesses and timely filing of the chargesheet.
While given the staggering numbers of pending cases, the problem cannot be overlooked but at the same time as pointed out by Justice Chauhan, reason for its persistence cannot be solely attributed to lesser number of judges. It will also be a logical fallacy to assume that appointment of more judges can alone provide overall solution to the problem.