Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Judicial Backlog : Focus on the Madras High Court, and a stimulating suggestion

The huge backlog of cases in the Indian judiciary has often cropped up in posts and discussions on this blog. Recently, this post incidentally mentioned Chief Justice Balakrishnan's Law Day speech where he provided details of the latest statistics relating to cases pending before various levels of the judicial setup. Sriram Panchu, a leading light of the Madras High Court bar, has an op-ed in today's Hindu which begins by focusing on the CJI's speech, and the numbers cited there. He then focuses more closely on the statistics to make the point that the High Court of Madras "does seem to have received stepmotherly treatment." He goes on to assert that:

Whether one takes pendency or fresh institution of cases, absolute numbers or percentages, the Madras High Court is disadvantaged. The Court with the second largest caseload and the biggest influx of fresh cases has the least number of judges. Every Court in this country needs more judges, and the purpose of this piece is not that other courts do not deserve to have increases in judge strength. Instead, it is to underscore the position in a major High Court, which seems to have been overlooked for no appreciable reason.

The rest of the piece makes good on this theme by citing statistics, and discussing the implications of the staggering pendency for the functioning of the High Court of Madras. Towards the end, Panchu raises a more general point of policy:

This situation must cause us to rethink the present system under which courts are dependent on the executive for funds for their infrastructure and functioning. Governments have various priorities, and can always plead shortage of funds (which seem ready at hand for populist causes). Politicians and bureaucrats are often at the receiving end of court orders and censures, and can hardly be expected to be generous when sanctioning budgets for the judiciary. Isn’t it rather strange that ministerial berths can be created at the drop of a hat, but judicial posts are being sanctioned, and filled, slowly? We need a different, more independent method of evaluation of judicial needs and speedier responses. Perhaps a National Judicial Commission, whose birth is long awaited, can perform that role.

Panchu’s argument appears compelling, and though judges have often made calls for greater allocation of funds in the annual Union budget, the linking up of this issue with the National Judicial Commission appears to be a novel suggestion, and may well be worth considering seriously.

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