THE country’s judiciary has for long been facing a huge backlog of pending cases in the courts and the prolonged closure of regular courts due to the pandemic has further aggravated the situation. The general holiday that was declared in March 2020 to contain the spread of Covid-19 and the subsequent limited operation of courts has added another 2.48 lakh pending cases to the backlog. A total of 39,33,186 cases — 34,64,998 with subordinate courts, 4,52,963 with the High Court and 15,225 with the Appellate Division — were pending with courts as of December 31, 2020. Lawyers fear that the pending cases will multiply as the online courts are operating on a limited scale only to hear bail prayers and other urgent cases since April 4. During this period, there has been no disposal of pending cases, but the filing of new cases continued. The backlogs have been a cause of unbearable suffering for justice seekers and increasing the prison population rapidly. In what follows, the government must consider the demand for immediate resumption of court operations maintaining health safety rules for Covid-19.
While the pandemic has contributed to the backlog of pending cases, the problem is not unique to the current situation. The backlog has been a cause of concern for long. In 2016–2017, according to a 2019 justice audit report of the law ministry, the number of cases pending with the chief judicial magistrates’ courts increased by 14 per cent. At the session judges’ courts and the High Court Division, pending cases rose by 16 and 9 per cent respectively. If the growth of pending cases continues at this pace, the audit projected that all courts would have over 70 per cent of their cases pending by 2022. Eminent jurists on various occasions have identified delayed deposition, or not showing up, of witness, too many adjournments at courts and poor performance by prosecutors as the leading causes for case backlog. They have also blamed the appointment of law officers on political consideration and the growing tendency to file politically motivated cases without much legal merit. The number of subordinate court judges is also inadequate as there are only 1,800 judges to serve 16 crore people of the country.
It is rather unfortunate that justice dispensation is delayed by legal bureaucracy. The government must act immediately to rectify the situation and consider the demand of the lawyers for immediate resumptions of regular operations of courts to avoid further piling of pending cases during the pandemic. However, the government must form a national commission, as suggested by jurists, to solicit opinion and draft a plan on how to reduce the backlog of cases. It must act considering that the protracted process would mean added cost for case management and higher prison population.
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