Courts under water in India and Kenya

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.

A remarkable look inside India’s overburdened court system

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delay, extraordinary inefficiency, and basic injustice stemming from a lethal combination of judicial vacancies, outdated filing systems, and lax protocols for advancing cases to resolution.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”

Lawyers in India sue to address an unsafe working environment — the courthouse

The Mazgaon Court Bar Association is filing a writ with the High Court to address the unsafe conditions in a Mumbai courthouse after an 18 kg slab fell from the ceiling in one of the busiest courtrooms in Monday.  The building was a chemical factory before its 2003 conversion into a courthouse.

The photo of the damage is truly worth a thousand words.

Calcutta High Court to combat docket backlog with special summer sittings

The problems surrounding the backlog sound rather extreme to American ears. First, the summer session is designed to address cases prior to January 1, 2000 — seventeen-and-a-half years ago. By contrast, federal civil cases in the U.S. are flagged after being in the system for three years. Second, the backlog has been exacerbated by the Calcutta court’s vacancy crisis — only 35 judges are sitting, although 72 are authorized.

The bar association has opposed the summer session, on the grounds that “lawyers also need some respite during the grueling summer.”  No word on the opinion of the litigants who cases have been pending for nearly two decades.