Even 74 years after independence, the judicial system does not work within reasonable timelines. Thousands who rely on the legal system suffer as verdicts get delayed, denying them justice. A 108-year-old man died recently before the Supreme Court could address his appeal in a land dispute that he had pursued since 1968. Pending cases infringe the right to a fair and speedy trial, writesOSHI SAXENA.
SOPAN Narsinga Gaikwad, a 108-year-old man, died before the Supreme Court could hear his appeal in a land dispute he had pursued since 1968. The case was pending before the Bombay High Court for close to 27 years before it got dismissed.
The Supreme Court agreed on July 12 to hear his appeal after his counsel argued that the delay was because the elderly petitioner lived in rural Maharashtra and learned of the High Court verdict much later. The protocols for the Covid-19 pandemic also delayed him.
Gaikwad had purchased a plot of land in 1968 through a registered sale deed. He discovered it had been mortgaged with a bank instead of the loan taken by the original owner. When the previous owner defaulted on repayment, the bank notified Gaikwad.
“Unfortunately, the man who pursued his case right from the trial court to the Supreme Court was not alive to hear that his matter has been agreed to be heard,” the petitioner’s counsel Viraj Kadam told news agency PTI.
A bench of Justices DY Chandrachud and Hrishikesh Roy issued notice on the application to condone two 1,467-day and 267-day delays in petitioning the Supreme Court against two High Court orders, passed in 2015 and 2019. The Supreme Court also requested a response from the opposing parties within eight weeks.
“We must note that the petitioner is 108 years old, and the High Court did not deal with the merits of the case, and the matter was dismissed due to the non-appearance of the advocates,” Justice Chandrachud said.
The bench said that after his case got dismissed in 2015, his lawyers may have been unable to locate him since he lived in a rural area. It noted the submission from Kadam that the trial court decree was reversed by the first appellate court, while the second appeal before the Bombay High Court had been pending since 1988.
Numerous cases are pending in courts that stay unresolved for a decade or much longer. More get added to this pile every day, as the courts are unable to deal with them.
Long-lost Bhopal gas tragedy trial
Another example of judicial sluggishness is the Bhopal gas tragedy case. The Union Carbide Factory devastated over five lakh people, and the aftermath of the poisonous leaks still impedes the lives of those who live in the area. The case has dragged on for years in court, but only seven company employees were tried and convicted, to just two years in prison.
The company avoided liability by paying $470 million as compensation. However, many victims have yet to receive compensation for the undeniable harm the adversity caused them. A long and complex legal battle ensued, but victims are still hoping for justice three decades later.
Jessica Lal case: a prolonged battle for truth and justice
The murder of Jessica Lal was a high-profile case that no one could forget, and for all the wrong reasons. In the early hours of April 30, 1999, Jessica Lal, a celebrity barmaid, was shot to death by Manu Sharma at a crowded party. Manu is the son of Venod Sharma, a wealthy and influential former Congressman from Haryana.
Sharma murdered her for refusing to serve him alcohol after the bar had closed for the night. During the first trial, which concluded on February 21, 2006, Manu and others got acquitted. The prosecution witnesses had turned hostile, and one even proposed the absurd two-weapon theory. Many believe the witnesses were under intense pressure to change their narratives.
Years later, in December 2007, Sharma was finally sentenced to life in prison. On June 1, 2020, he walked out of Tihar jail, released prematurely from his life sentence by the sentence review panel of the Delhi government, which cited his “good conduct” as the reason.
Stern SC warning on NCMSC report
The Supreme Court recently expressed disappointment that a report of the National Court Management Systems Committee (NCMSC) in 2019 was still very far from being enforced.
‘If left to the Union of India and the states, no work would happen at the Supreme Court. The government is the largest litigant and in every matter, with few exceptions, there is an application for time,’ said a bench consisting of Justice DY Chandrachud and Justice MR Shah.
The NCMSC study, led by former Supreme Court Justice AK Sikri, recommended steps to standardise judicial hearings and minimise the case backlog. In November 2019, the NCMSC submitted a five-volume report.
In January 2020, the Supreme Court asked the Centre and States to file their responses. By last week, though 1.5 years have gone by, the governments of Delhi and Uttar Pradesh had still not filed their responses.
According to the National Judicial Data Grid, the judiciary has to grapple with a massive backlog of around 30 million cases. With 17 judges per million citizens, the ratio of judges to citizens is highly insufficient.
India has a complicated legal system. Cases get transferred from inferior to superior courts, fresh arguments and evidence must get presented, and dates are assigned after long gaps, sometimes of a year.
Retrials occur, and years or decades pass by without any concrete legal outcomes. The government must find solutions to these problems, for delays unnecessarily make life dreadful for those who decide to embark on never-ending quests for justice.
(Oshi Saxena is pursuing her master’s degree in journalism from Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune. She hopes to amplify the voices of the underprivileged. The views expressed are personal.)