After a year of pandemic that seriously affected the functioning of the courts, India’s next Chief Justice NV Ramana will take command amid grave challenges. Increasing backlogs in cases, struggles among the lower courts to adapt to new technological paradigms, an annoying conflict between the Union Government and the Supervisory Committee on the appointment of judicial officers and pending Constitutional Bank issues that are fundamental to citizens call for a Prioritization. At the inauguration of a new HC building in Goa last week, Justice Ramana indeed highlighted the need to modernize the judicial infrastructure.
The pandemic could not have occurred at a worse time. In the four months of 2019, the Indian lower courts had eliminated more cases than initiated, which provided insight into the latent potential when critical inputs such as improving litigation, filling posts in the judiciary, improving courtroom infrastructure, the hiring of trained support staff and a systematic push to reduce dependency. But 2020 was a setback. Both fresh and discarded cases decreased from 2019, but the decline in case disposal was steeper, increasing dependency by nearly 50 lakh cases to 4 crore cases. HCs have 57 lakh cases pending and SC 67,000 cases.
Criminal victims, underserved prisoners, civil litigation attorneys and the wider economy bear the brunt of this dysfunction. Ex-CJI Ranjan Gogoi admitted this, noting that people regret their decision to go to court. Justice Ramana’s challenge is to work closely with the Union’s Justice Department, HC Chief Justice and state governments to guide the reforms needed. Streamlining modular processes, which take up the most time, needs to be done seriously. However, if the Center and the SC are continued to blame for the division of responsibility for delaying judicial appointments, there is a risk that this bigger picture will be overlooked. These differences of opinion hinder the filling of 411 vacancies and force HCs to get by with a workforce of 669 judges.
The last appointment to SC was in September 2019; Since then, the number of vacancies has risen to five and there is only one acting SC judge left. In a country where 48% of the population are women, this gender gap needs to be proactively addressed in the apex institution that donates justice. SC’s views on pressing topical issues such as CAA and interfaith marriage laws enacted by multiple states are also eagerly awaited. Don’t waste a good crisis. A silver lining has increased the acceptance and acceptance of technology. In the same vein as the centre’s economic reforms triggered by the pandemic, all parties involved must unite to change the perception of a “dilapidated” judiciary.
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This piece appeared as an editorial statement in the print edition of The Times of India.