Backlog of cases

Published April 26, 2016

MEMBERS of the bench are not often given to displays of emotion, particularly in public, but rather tend towards sober self-restraint.

The absence of justice, however, can sometimes reduce a judge to tears, as evinced on Sunday when India’s chief justice, T.S. Thakur, spoke at a conference in New Delhi attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as India’s chief ministers and high court chief justices.

Speaking about the ‘avalanche’ of cases clogging up the ultra-lethargic Indian legal system — at the present rate of litigation, the criminal cases alone that are pending today will take 30 years to clear — the judge made an emotional appeal to Mr Modi for reforms to address the gridlock.

A major issue is the inadequate number of judges, resulting in crushing workloads of 2,600 cases per judge annually. Quite correctly, Chief Justice Thakur linked the resolution of the problem to the progress and development of the country.

Doubtless, many members of the bench in Pakistan can identify with the distress expressed by their counterpart on the other side of the border.

The numbers here, adjusting for population, are also fairly dire, although nowhere near the same extent. It is estimated that around two million cases remain pending in various courts across the country, especially at the lower court level.

Also in a similar vein, the judiciary in Pakistan too is considered largely responsible for this backlog whereas the efficiency of the judicial system depends on the entire legal apparatus — investigation, prosecution, etc — working together as a well-oiled machine.

Parliament’s acquiescence in setting up military courts has further compromised public confidence in the legal system and perhaps delayed urgently needed reforms within.

While former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry did take concerted steps to clear the backlog, which included instituting double shifts daily for judges to preside over cases, the effort mainly remained confined to the higher judiciary, whereas it is the lower courts where much of the legal bottleneck accumulates.

The symbiotic link between progress and a functioning, accessible legal system has been demonstrated time and again.

Sometimes it is highlighted in instances of egregious rights violations committed in ‘verdicts’ given by parallel and informal ‘justice’ mechanisms.

Lest we forget, our recent history has also illustrated that dysfunctional or absent justice systems provide a convenient pretext for extremist elements, promising utopian visions of an equitable society, to expand their influence among angry, discontented populations.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2016

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