Almost three years ago, four justices of India’s highest court held a press conference to publicly air concerns about the administration of justice in that country. The press conference made international news, but it appears that it has not catalyzed significant change. At least, that it the view of this op-ed:
It appeared to have been alleged that in certain important matters the allocation of cases was done in a manner that could lead to desired outcomes.
If true, this was a profoundly serious charge.
There has been no change in this and the allocation is still being done by the Chief Justice at his own sweet will with no rational or transparent method.
There is still no transparency in the selection of judges.
The press conference by the judges was a historic first in the history of the judiciary anywhere in the world. It yielded no result and got reduced to a mere publicity event.
I wonder if this will get new traction in the coming year.
Changing the culture of a court–to promote efficiency, fairness, or dignified treatment of the parties–has been a program of serious study in the United States for at least half a century. But changing court culture is not merely a matter of changing judicial attitudes. All of the key players must share the new vision, including court staff, attorneys, and court users.
The trial courts in Vadodara, India are finding that out the hard way. Having declared that they will work through the summer to whittle down a docket of over 37,000 civil cases, the Vadodara courts were greeted with protests from some attorneys who had already made vacation plans. Those attorneys filed an “appeal” with the Gujarat High Court, seeking clarification that they in fact do not need to attend scheduled summer hearings. Among the reasons for seeking clarification: one hearing conflicted with an attorney’s personal naturopathy treatment.
India’s docket crisis is legendary and troubling. But judges cannot resolve these issues without the cooperation of the court system’s other key members.
For those readers who are particularly interested in all the happenings of the past year in the Supreme Court of India, I recommend this extremely thorough piece (with links) from Bar & Bench.
Two recent end-of-year reports suggest that justice systems in India and Pakistan remain completely overwhelmed. In Pakistan, the docket of the apex court has more than doubled in five years, to more than 40,000 pending cases this year. This is unfortunately reminiscent of the terrible backlogs that India also continues to experience in its courts.
Part of the problem has to do with human resources: one report notes that India has fewer than 20 judges per million people, as compared to 51 judges per million people in the UK, and 107 judges per million people in the US. But it is also not appropriate to blame the docket crisis solely on not having enough judges. The court system needs to think more creatively–and frankly, work harder and smarter–about resolving cases efficiently.
Previous entries on India’s docket crisis can be found here, here, here, and here.
The Indian Express reports:
Ushering in more transparency in the judiciary’s work, the Supreme Court on Wednesday gave its nod to live-streaming of court proceedings, saying this will bring more accountability and enhance the rule of law.
A bench of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra and Justices A M Khanwilkar and D Y Chandrachud, in two concurring judgements — one by CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar and other by Justice Chandrachud — said: “We hold that the cause brought before this court by the protagonists in larger public interest deserves acceptance so as to uphold the constitutional rights of the public, and the litigants in particular.”
Delving into the benefits of allowing this, Justice Chandrachud said, “Above all, sunlight is the best disinfectant.”
India gets it. When will we be able to say that of our Supreme Court?
After a tumultuous administration under Chief Justice Deepak Misra, the Supreme Court of India will swear in Ranjan Gogoi as its new chief justice on October 3. Gogoi has been a judge since 2001.
Two stories coming out of India caught my eye this past week. The first was an op-ed discussing the ongoing debate about the use of MBA-qualified court managers to gain better control over the administration of the court system. Given the shocking backlog and delay in many of India’s courts, appointing special managers to help streamline the case management process makes good sense. But as is the case with most organizations, the introduction of “outsiders” to clean up an internal mess poses a threat to those already working within the system. Fixing this will require a cultural shift within the Indian court system, probably from the top down. But it will not be easy.
In an unrelated story, but one reflecting some of the same difficulties, an attorney was held in contempt of court and jailed for one month for making disparaging remarks about the court on Facebook. The court referred to the “judge bashing” as a form of browbeating, terrorizing, or intimidating judges.
I cannot find the exact social media post that instigated the contempt charge, so I cannot tell whether the lawyer’s actions were an anomaly or something more pervasive. But the whole story suggests an unhealthy relationship between court and counsel. Attacking the courts on Facebook is childish and unprofessional. But jailing a lawyer for a social media post is (at least seemingly) thin-skinned and cowardly. Unless the post called for violence against judges or the court system, a contempt proceeding would seem to do more harm to the courts than a Facebook post ever would.
UPDATE: The entire contempt order can be found here. It does appear that the lawyer’s Facebook comments were pretty obnoxious (although I am not culturally suave enough to decode them entirely). But the court’s 45-page defense of judicial independence and the “majesty of the law” also seems very over the top. Quoting Othello is a particularly odd, cloying touch. A shorter, sterner statement could have addressed the court’s concerns without making the judges appear so professionally and emotionally fragile.
Last year I discussed a shocking story on the backlogged conditions in India’s courts, and the extraordinary consequences of that backlog for litigants, lawyers, and judges alike. Speaking this week at the opening of a new courthouse, India’s Chief Justice Deepak Misra once again acknowledged the problem, stating that the courts lack the basic infrastructure needed to competently manage their caseloads.
The Chief Justice apparently blamed the challenges on the “miniscule” budgetary allocation that the courts receive. And surely the courts are hampered by the limited space and staffing they receive. But blaming the problem entirely on resource dependence is problematic in its own right. Delays and administrative problems have been shown repeatedly to be at least partially a problem of court culture. Can the Chief Justice convince the country’s judiciary to adopt internal changes and accountability measures that might, in the end, win them additional support for more resources?
I have previously documented recent threats to the proper functioning of the court systems of India and Kenya. In India, appalling delays and overflowing dockets, combined with strife at the highest levels of the judiciary, have undermined with the effectiveness of the system and overall public confidence. Now, unfortunately, related news has been announced: the country’s lower courts face almost 6,000 judicial vacancies. Even for a country of more than one billion people, that number is shocking.
Kenya has faced a different set of challenges in recent months, after its Supreme Court invalidated a presidential election and was subjected to ongoing threats and attacks. This week’s news is of a less violent sort, but one that is perhaps even more problematic for the judiciary: more than 50,000 cases in the court system have been pending for a decade or more. And the total case backlog stands at more than 315,000.
These stories keenly illustrate the idea of judicial interdependence: courts must operate fairly and efficiently to earn public confidence, and they need adequate resources to be able to do so. When courts are properly resourced and properly run, they earn confidence and more resources–a virtuous circle. But when they are poorly run or under attack, they become inefficient and lose both resources and legitimacy–a vicious circle. The Kenyan and Indian judiciaries are locked into the vicious circle right now.
The Wall Street Journal published a fascinating article yesterday on daily life at India’s largest courthouse, the Allahabad High Court. It tells a tale of extreme delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution. Among the facts presented in the article:
- Nearly 45% of judicial positions on the court are unfilled, due in large part to an ongoing battle between the judiciary and the other branches of government about the most appropriate methods for judicial selection.
- On average, it takes nearly four years to adjudicate a simple commercial dispute in India — twice as long as in Brazil and more than three times as long as in the United States.
- More than 86% of high court cases in India take 10-15 years to adjudicate. Fewer than 5% are resolved in less than five years.
- The Allahabad High Court receives nearly 1,000 new cases every day. Almost half are filed by the government. Judges on the court even have a name for newly filed cases that have not even been looked at yet — “backlog fresh.”
- It is so unpredictable which cases will be called on any given day that one lawyer profiled has associates spread out across all the courtrooms to track if — and when — any of his 34 open lawsuits on the court’s calendar might be taken up by a judge.
- Even though rural litigants often have to travel a whole day to appear in court, it is commonplace that their cases will not be called and another day will be wasted.
- The system encourages delay by allowing lawyers to file an “illness slip” to postpone a hearing, whether or not they are actually sick.
- Case records are badly misfiled–piled on floors and chairs, and intermingled by year. In the story, a worker searched eight hours for files for the next day’s cases, and was still missing 17 of 65 by day’s end.
This is a jaw-dropping account, the paragon of “justice delayed is justice denied.” What can we make of it?
Continue reading “A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system”