EVERY new Chief Justice who takes charge in any high court of our country promises to do “something” to tackle the accumulated backlog of pending cases in that high court.
The fact that all subsequent Chiefs promise exactly the same thing when they arrive on the scene proves that none of their departing predecessors succeeded in fulfilling that promise.
One innovative Chief who had been transferred to the Bombay High Court from Delhi had devised a novel idea to try and speed things up.
For the subordinate judiciary, he introduced a system of awarding marks to every judge based on the number of disposals achieved every month by that judge.
Desirable targets were set and different marks were fixed for different categories with final disposals fetching the highest marks.
For his privileged brethren in the high court, however, he could do no such thing as he was merely the “first among equals”. Still, he announced that their “disposals” would be displayed for study on the official website.
This move yielded a strange result.
The subordinate judges told the lawyers appearing before them that they must somehow achieve the “quota” of cases fixed for them. They candidly proposed that if members of the Bar cooperated with them to cross their targets for the month in a shorter time, all of them could take the remaining days off if they liked! The bar loved this proposal as it opened up the possibility of taking mini-vacations every month and availing of massive off-season discounts.
I recall how a friend of mine who was a prosecutor was summoned by the Sessions Judge to whose court he was attached. As he was waiting outside the wooden cabin to be called inside, he could hear the judge speaking loudly over the phone with a colleague. This is what he overheard: “Aaj tumhi kiti udavley?” (“How many have you eliminated today?”) My friend told me later that he felt as if he was eavesdropping on a conversation between two encounter specialists!
In the high court, when the Chief analysed quarterly charts of disposals as reported by the registry he was shocked to find that the disposals of two of the laziest milords in the high court who hardly did any work, were far higher than the disposals achieved by those who sat late and worked very hard.
Some of us at the bar however knew the “secret” behind these “achievements”. There is no harm in sharing them now.
One milord used trickery and jugglery while the other creatively used his inherent aptitude for inertia. We can call them Justice Tricky and Justice Lazy.
Justice Tricky would prepare a short cause list for urgent admissions every day and a very long one for final hearing matters. He took up only the urgent admissions board and sat with it for the entire day…and still did not finish it on any day. He never touched the final hearing board day after day till the lawyers took it for granted that at his speed (or lack of it) he would never get past even his daily admission board.
Then, suddenly on one fine day when no one in the final hearing list would be present, he would run through the urgent admission board. Not by hearing and disposing of the matters, but by adjourning most of them. Justice Tricky would then start calling out the matters on the long final hearing board one by one. In every matter, he would pass the same order:
“Parties and advocates absent when matter is called out. Dismissed for want of prosecution. Interim orders, if any, to stand vacated.”
This way, Tricky J. notched up hundreds of “disposals” in a matter of minutes. This was dutifully added by the registry to his “tally” for the day which was meant for public display.
Thereafter, on the same day or the very next day, all those lawyers whose matters had been called out and dismissed would line up begging Tricky J. to restore their cases to file.
Tricky J. would then lecture them about how those old cases had been pending for years and how they owed certain duties towards their clients. He never failed to mention how the milords sat beyond hours of duty to serve the cause of justice, but lawyers unfortunately did not reciprocate the commitment of milords and remained absent! However Tricky J. would be very polite and considerate. He would conclude his little homily by saying: “I will not entertain any oral requests for restoration. Please take out proper proceedings giving reasons for your inability to remain present.”
The lawyers obviously would have no choice but to get that done. These applications for restoration would then be given different numbers by the registry. Tricky J. would then list all those matters together. By a common order, he would then impose nominal costs to be paid to the Legal Aid Authority or the Bar Library and proceed to dispose of all the restoration applications by restoring the dismissed cases back on file…for some other milord to hear and decide in due course.
The disposal of the numerous applications for restoration of dismissed matters also served to boost Justice Tricky’s tally.
This modus operandi was adopted in different categories of cases throughout the assignment of Justice Tricky to notch up impressive statistics for the Chief.
Justice Lazy, on the other hand, was intelligent but lethargic. He would take up assignments in direct and indirect tax matters and put all his interns to work to find out cases involving common issues. He would then ask the counsel concerned to get all such cases clubbed together. Such lists of dozens of cases were then displayed on the board as “Group Matters”. Then he would ask the competent practitioners appearing before him to pick out groups which were “covered by SC judgments or earlier HC judgments” so that those could be disposed of on a priority basis by short common orders.
As this suited the counsel, they even obliged lazy milord by very helpfully preparing draft proforma orders!
In this manner, hundreds of disposals could be accomplished in a few days and they showed on Justice Lazy’s report card!
Such “achievements” were then compiled by someone in the registry into impressive statistics and supplied officially to whoever wanted to prove that in our high court the milords, against all odds, were zealously performing a herculean task.
In Parliament,the Law minister answered MPs on the basis of such statistics and newspapers reported such “official information” dished out by the bureaucratic number-crunchers.
Those of us who felt all this was just an “eyewash” or “jugglery” were not looked upon kindly by the milords who pretended that all was well.
They felt the honour of our great high court was at stake and it must always be shown in good light, whatever its shortcomings. So we behaved just like relatives of a heavily made-up bride behave at her wedding.
The honeymoon, however, is now over. Among other things, as a result of such efficient “case-load management techniques”, the arrears have now reached gargantuan proportions. But barring a few notable exceptions,most mediocre milords who are guaranteed their salaries,their perks and their retirement benefits, have no incentive to spoil their eyesight or tax their brains once they take their seats and get confirmed to warm the high benches till they retire.
As one of them, a friend who has now retired from the high bench ,once confided in me: “If my lethargic brother, incapable of disposing even five cases in a week, is treated on par with some of us who dispose 50 cases, and if he still gets all the same benefits on a platter, why should we bother to do all the work and take all the trouble?”
I wish I had a reasonable answer to my friend’s fundamental question.