The costs of justice
BIBEK DEBROY IN INDIAN EXPRESS
Paragraph 111 of this year’s Budget speech, which talked about the National Mission for Delivery of Justice and Legal Reforms, was overshadowed by other elements. Actually, there wasn’t much on this important component in the speech, beyond the statement that the government had approved the setting up of such a mission and that it would reduce court backlogs from an average of 15 years today to three years by 2012.
We were also told the 13th Finance Commission had approved Rs 5,000 crore for states to improve justice delivery. Let’s take the finance commission (grants in aid) first, noting that though the 11th Finance Commission did fund fast track courts, it is the Planning Commission’s responsibility to ensure fund flows for legal reforms. The timeframe for the 13th Finance Commission’s recommendations is 2010-2015 and we have an immediate disconnect between 2015 and 2012 mentioned in the Budget speech. How is this Rs 5,000 crore broken up?
First, Rs 2,500 crore will be provided to 14,825 morning/evening/special courts and shift systems and they will dispose of 112.5 million cases over a five-year period. That’s impressive and yes, there are successful experiments. The 13th Finance Commision notes morning courts in Andhra Pradesh and evening courts in Gujarat.
But will there be a general success template? Will we get special judicial or metropolitan magistrates for these courts? The finance commision suggests staffing by regular judiciary on payment of additional compensation. That’s unlikely to work. So, we effectively bank on retired judicial officers. More importantly, there is no guarantee those outcome targets will be met. The only check that exists is utilisation certificates and statements of expenditure under general financial rules.
Let us take 1,734 fast track courts funded by the11th Finance Commission. Not all money allotted was released. Not all money released was utilised. Why? Because state governments were lackadaisical about utilisation certificates. The prime minister told us this in April 2007 in a speech to the chief ministers and chief justices of high courts. Between 2000 and 2005, fast track courts disposed off 8,00,000 cases. When the 11th Finance Commission gave the money, they were expected to dispose off 5,00,000 cases every year. Second, 13th Finance Commission has given Rs 600 crore for alternative dispute resolution (ADR) centres (one in each district) and Rs 150 crore for training on ADR to judicial officers and advocates. Third, there are Rs 100 crore for the Lok Adalat scheme. That’s not a great deal of money. But we should note that the success of lok adalats hasn’t been phenomenal. The 13th Finance Commission expects 0.75 million cases to be disposed of between 2010 and 2015 because of this incremental initiative. Existing lok adalats dispose of roughly a million cases per year. Fourth, Rs 200 crore have been provided for legal aid. Fifth, there are Rs 250 crore for training of judicial officers. Sixth, there are Rs 300 crore for State Judicial Academies. Seventh, there are Rs 150 crore for training public prosecutors. Eighth, there are Rs 300 crore for court managers, feeding into the proposed National Arrears Grid. Ninth, there are Rs 450 crore for heritage court buildings. Finally, there is a little bit more, conditional on states formulating litigation policies.
A finance commission isn’t the primary channel for addressing justice delivery issues. But, as the above listing indicates, on this, the 13th Finance Commission has used a shotgun, in the hope something somewhere sticks. The implicit suggestion in the Budget speech that the 13th Finance Commission will help reduce average duration of cases to three years by 2012 is unwarranted.
Perhaps the other element in the speech, the national mission, will ensure this. It is laudable that under the present law minister, “timely justice for all” is now on the reform agenda and this mission is described as a blueprint for judicial reforms. In specific terms, elements in this blueprint are the following:
(1) Set up a special purpose vehicle (SPV) under Societies Registration Act to implement the action plan;
(2) Create a national arrears grid;
3)Formulate a national litigation policy at the Centre and in the states, to curb government litigation;
(4)Establish an all-India judicial service;
(5) Increase sanctioned strength of judges by 25 per cent;
(6) Appoint ad hoc judges on contractual basis;
(7) Create a national pool of judicial officers from retired judges;
(8) Speed up appointments of judges;
(9)Raise the retirement age of high court judges;
(10) Fast track specific cases;
(11)Get the Law Commission to examine changes required in statutory law, especially criminal law ;
(12) Improve case management;
(13) Use ADR for civil cases and plea bargaining for criminal cases;
(14) Use ICT, video conferencing and e-courts;
(15) Implement national minimum court performance standards; disposal should increase from 60 per cent of case load to 95-100 per cent in three years, not more than 5 per cent cases should be more than five years old.
Beyond the SPV, national arrears grid, national litigation policy and the idea of periodic reports to the PM (and public), none of these ideas are new. Nor can they be objected to. Within court structure proper (ignoring quasi-judicial forums), we now have a pendency of 29.1 million — 47,000 in the Supreme Court, 3.7 million in the high courts and 25.4 million in the lower courts. An appalling 5,30,000 cases in our high courts are more than 10 years old and we no longer seem to have age-specific data for the lower courts. Two-thirds of this pendency are criminal cases (concentrated in the lower courts.) It goes without saying that this isn’t tenable. Since criminal law falls under the home ministry and reforms in criminal justice are also contingent on police reforms, is the system likely to become credible by 2012?
Consider also the costs of improving legal infrastructure. There are different ways of working out the required number of courts/judges, judge-case ratio and judge-population ratio. Whichever way this is worked out, we are talking about 20,000 more courts and 40,000-60,000 more judges. This requires fixed costs of at least Rs 80,000 crore and annual running costs of at least Rs 1,60,000 crore. Finance commissions don’t dish out that kind of money. The Planning Commission does, but that is (since 1993) through a centrally-sponsored scheme, where 50 per cent of matching grant is provided by the states. While increasing courts/judges is not the only solution, it is an integral component.
Indeed, if the legal system becomes more credible, more people may resort to courts. The simple point is: reducing pendency has large costs and because of fiscal constraints, both the Centre and the states are unwilling. Therefore, we are tinkering with what seem to be low-cost solutions (lok adalats, people’s courts, women’s courts, family courts, ADR, mobile courts, shift systems, fast track courts, panchayats, gram nyalayas, ICT). This makes the 2012 target even less credible.
The writer is a Delhi-based economist