Economic Survey 2019: A Push Towards More Effective Judiciary
A gavel sits on a stage. (Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News)

Economic Survey 2019: A Push Towards More Effective Judiciary

The Economic Survey 2019 identifies “ability to enforce contracts and resolve disputes” as the biggest constraint in ease of doing business in India.

The survey, tabled in Parliament on Thursday, considers investing in improving the legal system the “best investment” for the country. India currently ranks a dismal 163 (among 190 nations) when it comes to enforcing contracts.

Pending cases, especially in lower courts, are the biggest culprits of ineffective legal machinery, the survey noted. There are 3.52 crore pending cases and 87.5 percent of these are in district courts and lower levels.

Supreme Court of India and NJDG, 2019   
Distribution of pending cases among different levels of courts in India   

Aim: Achieve 100 percent clearance rate and eliminate the stock of pendency in next five years.

The solution: Addition of 2,279 judges in lower courts and 93 judges in high courts.

Odisha, Bihar, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat have the highest number of pending cases. Punjab and Delhi have the least average pendency.

“It may not be a coincidence that the worst-performing states are usually (albeit not always) also the poorest.”

This is evidently crucial. The average disposal time—within which a case is finally determined by the relevant court—is significantly higher for India when compared to Council of Europe member states.

NJDG, as on May 31, 2019
Distribution of pending cases in district and subordinate courts

The Problem Of Fewer Judges

The sanctioned strength of 22,750 judges has also not been filled as only 17,891 judges are working, the survey said, adding that 8,152 more judges are needed to clear all the backlog in the next five years.

To clear all the backlog, high courts need 361 additional judges while the Supreme Court would need eight additional judges, it said.

Types Of Judges Required

Civil cases contribute a mere 28.38 percent to the total pendency in district and subordinate courts as on May 31, 2019, whereas criminal cases contribute about 71.62 percent. It is clear that the number of unresolved criminal disputes outweigh civil disputes, the survey said.

The problem is especially acute for criminal original suits such as summons, warrants etc. These contribute 64 percent of the total pendency as of May 31, 2019, with a clearance rate of 85.3 percent, it said.

This implies that additional judges need to specialise in these case types so as to speed up the disposal of such cases. Note that this is a case not merely for additional judges and legal reforms, but also for police reforms.
Economic Survey 2019

What Causes Delays?

The data from E-Courts—which keeps data on pending cases—shows that most of the time is spent in ‘Lower Courts Records – Records and Proceedings’ stage. This is the stage where a higher court receives case files and records from a lower court—a purely administrative exercise.

Civil cases spend an average of 398 days in this stage and 369 days in the ʻHearing’ stage. This inefficiency consumes a significant proportion of a case’s life, and is a major factor contributing to delays and backlog. The ʻNotice/Summons’ and ʻEvidence’ stages are also time-consuming at 322 and 325 days on average, respectively.

Improving Productivity

Without increasing strength of the number of judges, if one was to improve the efficiency of courts (rate at which prior cases are disposed and no backlog exists), the existing workforce would need to gain 58 percent in efficiency and productivity. But with sanctioned strength, the efficiency needs to increase by only 4.3 percent, the report said.

The survey makes the following suggestions to improve productivity:

  • Increase number of working days and reduce vacation time for Supreme Court. Number of working days for the Supreme Court is just 190. In contrast, the average is 232 working days for high courts and 244 days for subordinate courts.
  • Improve back-end services: For effective functioning, courts require competent administration to ensure that processes are followed. The report proposes creation of a specialised service called Indian Courts and Tribunal Services that focuses on the administrative aspects of the legal system and takes care of administrative glitches, thereby improving system efficiencies.
  • It is also crucial to imbibe technology into the workings of the court, the survey said, suggesting future applications of artificial intelligence in Indian courts.

These suggestions may seem ambitious but are achievable, the survey concluded.

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