For the Indian judiciary, delays and backlog are an old woe. By launching the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms in 2011 the Central government attempted to redeem the situation and usher in significant legal reforms. As the Working Group for Department of Justice for the 12th Five-Year Plan in its report of 2011 noted, the idea behind the mission was “to ensure a well-coordinated response of the executive and the judiciary for speeding up delivery of justice in the country and to reduce the delay in the disposal of cases by the courts”.
The ambitious target of the mission was to reduce pendency from 15 years to three years within the time frame of five years spanning from 2011 to 2016. This umbrella programme was designed for efficient utilisation of funds under the 12th Plan and convergence of various initiatives such as Action Research and Studies on Judicial Reforms, Access to Justice - Government of India Project, E-Courts Phase-II and the centrally sponsored scheme for developing judicial infrastructure facilities. This initiative was an outcome of national consultation in pursuance to the then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s address at the joint conference of chief ministers and chief justices in 2009 where he expressed his concerns over the fact that ‘India has to suffer the scourge of the world’s largest backlog of cases’.
The composition of the mission includes an advisory council, governing council, mission director and national mission leader. The purpose of the advisory council was to advise on the goals, objectives and strategies of the national mission and the action plan and its implementation and performance in meeting its objectives. It is chaired by the Union Minister of Law and Justice and the Union Minister of State for Law and Justice acts as the vice-chairman. Its membership consists of representatives of the Parliament, Central and state governments, the bar, Law Commission as well as jurists. This was perhaps the first time when such a focussed approach was taken for efficient allocation and utilisation of resources for the judiciary by invoking a consultative process.
The advisory council in its past meetings deliberated on important judicial reforms. Some of the topics that have been brought up for discussion, according to the minutes of the meetings, include strategic initiatives that may help in reduction of pending cases, comprehensive review of the criminal justice system including suitable changes to be made to the Code of Criminal Procedure, implementation of the Gram Nyayalaya Scheme, judicial vacancies, setting up of fast track courts to deal with commercial matters, streamlining of court processes to process automation under the eCourts project, etc. Evidently, these meetings become a platform for the executive as well as the legal fraternity to sit together and discuss the possible judicial reforms and track the developments on their past decisions. The appraisal of the Action Taken Reports of ministries, high courts, Law Commission and various other institutions ensure the continuity in the dialogue between the stakeholders. The National Mission to its credit has made significant development in computerisation of courts, infrastructure creation, increasing the number of judges and other structural changes.
To date, the council has held 10 meetings, the last of which was conducted over two years ago on 18 October, 2016. With the website of the Department of Justice only publishing the agendas and minutes of the seventh to the tenth meeting, it appeared that the council had performed a disappearing act, especially since it is mandated to meet every six months. To understand the reasons behind the disappearing act, we filed an RTI application with the Department of Justice.
The response by the ministry revealed that despite several attempts by the Department of Justice to convene a meeting since 2016, the same has not taken place. Proposals for the same were circulated with the objective of scheduling a meeting in the months of April or May in 2017. However, for reasons best known to the ministry, these plans did not materialise and repeated attempts, by the department to convene the meeting were made in June, July and November of 2017. Finally, as the authors gather from the replies, the meeting had been scheduled for the 11 November 2017 with the approval of the Minister for Law and Justice. However, due to the non-availability of the minister (who is also the Union Minister for Electronics & Information Technology) on the said date, the meeting had to be postponed.
With a staggering number of cases still pending and most of the reforms deliberated under the national mission still remaining incomplete, there is undoubtedly a lot that remains to be done. Given that even the vision statement of the mission recognises that workable deliverables cannot be projected by the mission beyond 10 years because of the rapid changes taking place in the nation, the consequences of ironic delays by the council cannot be overstated. Moreover, the Union Budget had earmarked over Rs 1,200 crore for the national mission for the years 2016-19, and the possibility that majority of the development under the mission during this time took place without the advisory council in the picture is not particularly reassuring.
The initiation of the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms was indeed a major step towards the radical transformation required by the judiciary. We can only hope that this year a meeting of the advisory council will feature on the priority list of the law minister and the discussions that were halted two years ago will finally resume.
The authors are research fellows at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, New Delhi
Updated Date: Feb 14, 2019 11:15:03 IST