According to the data mapped, there is no systematic pattern of judicial pendency. The lack of a uniform pattern suggests that pendency is location-specific and requires a decentralised solution.
JUDICIAL pendency, especially at the district level, is extremely concerning. As per the data available at the National Judicial Data Grid (‘NJDG’), 4,20,20,533 cases, both civil and criminal, are pending in various district courts across the country. Out of this, 1,06,577 cases are more than 30 years old. In fact, a recently settled property dispute in Bihar’s Bhojpur district was filed in 1914!
To understand more about judicial pendency, the available data needs to be mapped and analysed. The Leaflet interviewed Dr. Yugank Goyal and Smriti Jalihal, associate professor at FLAME University and the founding director at the University’s Centre for Knowledge Alternatives, and research associate at the Centre, respectively who have written an article for Livemint on judicial delay wherein, they geographically mapped district-level data, of cases pending for more than 10 years taken from the NJDG.
The mapping led to some very interesting findings. Contrary to the popular belief, there is no systematic pattern of judicial delay. The authors found out that some districts may have higher pendency rates but the adjoining districts may have low pendency rates.
We propose that pendency is a district or court-specific problem. If it is the latter, we think that it could be related to the culture of the court.
The delays, the authors have said, could be because of various informal practices at the district court level that have not been properly acknowledged yet. The findings are certainly important for us to understand how the problem of pendency at the local level consists of various decentralised issues and calls for district-specific solutions.
Edited excerpts from the interview:
Q: What prompted you both to write on this topic?
A: At the Centre for Knowledge Alternatives, we conduct district-level research on both cultures and demography (the latter including health, education, labour, agriculture, policy and judiciary, for instance). We did a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) mapping of the district-level cases from the data available on the NJDG and found some interesting patterns. We already know the issues related to pendency and wanted to study that in-depth to understand the reasons behind judicial pendency.
Knowledge clusters are regional in nature for a reason. Cultures flow geographically. If indeed court delays are a result of court cultures, then the spill-over of such cultures will happen most in the adjoining districts. There is some clustering seen in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
In furtherance of this, we engaged with a number of lawyers and legal scholars to understand the reasons that cause pendency. The map we drew had interesting revelations that we realised must be exposed to a larger or legal audience. Hence, we decided to write a piece on it.
Q: But the empirical data on the NJDG is limited, right?
A: It has enough data at the district level to prompt one’s research on judicial pendency, and many other aspects indeed. The data is bifurcated into different categories. You can also find this data at the National Data & Analytics Platform on the NITI Aayog’s website. Of course, it is difficult to understand the data spatially, until it is mapped. But NJDG has, at least, made things easy for us. In fact, the NITI Aayog’s portal has the data in a much more simplified manner.
Q: You say pendency is a ‘district level’ problem. Could you elaborate on that?
A: Before mapping the data, if we were to anticipate where most of the judicial pendency exists, the common anticipation would be in populated states or those where we think the most litigious population would be present. However, when we mapped it, this was not the case. There is no common state-wide pattern here according to our observations. For instance, our map shows that districts in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar have a lot of judicial pendency. But this is not the case in all their districts. In addition, we also found many states have generally low pendency, but still have two-three districts with high pendency (for instance Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Odisha).
Thus, the absence of a predicted and uniform pattern led us to believe that the idea of pendency is not case-related as much as it is locality-driven. There may be a district with a higher rate of pendency, but the adjoining district with a similar population and culture might have a relatively low rate of pendency.
Based on that, we propose that pendency is a district or court-specific problem. If it is the latter, we think that it could be related to the culture of the court. Having engaged with lawyers, we also find that this may be a result of various informal practices that take place on the court premises. It may have developed because of a certain type of social norm or the kind of procedures the courts are engaged in, with lawyers.
Further, we claim two more things. First, pending case distribution is highly unequal. Almost 62 per cent of cases pending for 10+ years lie in 10 per cent of the districts. Issues are highly decentralised, therefore. Second, it is likely that the culture of delay may spread from one district to another (usually neighbouring). This is only possible to understand when you spatially map the data over time, rather than looking at the numbers in tables or graphs.
Q: What informal practice are you both referring to?
A: So many informal practices prevail in the courts routinely. For instance, sometimes the case demands a fee to be charged on a ‘per hearing’ basis. This can incentivize some lawyers to needlessly prolong the case because a higher number of hearings will result in higher incomes. Some lawyers are often overburdened with cases. If they have several hearings on the same day or time, they will need to prioritize which case to appear in based on the urgency of the matter in that case. As a result, the other cases are often adjourned, which further inflates pendency.
Oftentimes, discussions on speedy delivery of justice remain obsessed with speed. Let us recognize and accept that the goal of an efficient judiciary is – after all – justice and not efficiency.
Sometimes the law itself can be exploited. For instance, in a criminal case, the physical presence of all the parties is necessary for the hearings to take place. Now, if one of the parties is unable to attend it (for all kinds of reasons, say, they changed the address and did not receive the summons), the judge may need to adjourn it for another time. These flexibilities may also be exploited. (This may also explain why most pending cases are criminal and not civil cases since the hearing keeps getting delayed).
Q: As per your mapped data, you have found that the criminal and civil matters are co-related at the district level. Could you elaborate on this claim?
A: We did not mean that there is a correlation. What we are trying to imply is that districts which have higher pendency in criminal cases also have higher pendency in civil suits and vice-versa. That is why we claim that pendency is case-neutral. Examples of such districts are Pune, Thane, Ahmedabad, Nagpur, Deoria, Kushinagar and some others in central Uttar Pradesh. All these districts have over 5,000 pending civil cases and over 20,000 pending criminal cases.
Q: Is the similar pattern of civil and criminal cases spreading? You refer to it as “there is some spillover of district court cultures in terms of delays“. Could you explain that?
A: We cannot be sure if it is indeed spreading or not, but there is a chance it might. That is one of our hypotheses. Knowledge clusters are regional in nature for a reason. Cultures flow geographically. If indeed court delays are a result of court cultures, then the spill-over of such cultures will happen most in the adjoining districts. There is some clustering seen in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But like we say, it is only a hypothesis at this stage, worth investigating. For this, we need to map this data over several years.
Q: Since the pattern is not systematic, how would you propose any district-level intervention/policy changes?
A: First, let us not just say that the pattern is only unsystematic. There are systematic issues too. Both need to be acknowledged. Second, we need empirical research on specific districts with higher rates of pendency; that is, those 10 districts having almost 2/3rd pendency. Along with data, we think it is important to engage with stakeholders of these districts to know more about the existing pendency. So, for instance, officers and judges of the district court know the number and type of cases that are pending. Third, a lot can be done through the initiatives of the judiciary. Perhaps, there could be a new position created at the district level for ensuring speedy delivery of justice. A judge or registrar could be assigned for this through an administrative set-up to focus only on judicial pendency. Fourth, specialised tribunals can also be constituted to address the issue of judicial pendency (the government is already doing that).
Apart from this, we think certain issues like pending judicial vacancies and limited working hours or days of the judiciary should be addressed. These are also major reasons for judicial pendency. Further, infrastructure has also been an issue at the district level. Courts without proper infrastructure become spaces of frustration that hampers efficient functioning.
We must also not forget the importance of technology and the use of Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) as a potential means to speed up justice delivery systems. These experiments have begun in many parts of the world, although they need to be refined further.
Q: Will creating specialised tribunals solve the problem?
A: We think it does. It helps in de-cluttering the judicial system. Look at the National Green Tribunal, which focuses specifically on environmental issues. But just setting a tribunal is not enough. It is important that the constitution of the tribunal must be done in a manner that it is only assigned specific tasks. The appointment of the members for the tribunal is also an important task. All of this will decide its efficient functioning.
The court culture plays a huge role in determining the number of pending cases; for instance, if judges give fewer judgments in a day, this might result in an increase in pendency as well as undertrials. Similarly, writing long judgments by the judges might also add to the delay in passing the judgment.
Let us also emphasize here, that in this frenzy of bringing efficiency to justice, one must not forget ‘justice.’ Oftentimes, discussions on speedy delivery of justice remain obsessed with speed. Let us recognize and accept that the goal of an efficient judiciary is – after all – justice and not efficiency.
Q: You talk about the involvement of judges in addressing judicial pendency. Should they be sensitised first about the possible solutions that they can adopt?
A: Sensitisation at the district level is indeed important. The judiciary needs to be made aware of the repercussions of the pendency. The court culture plays a huge role in determining the number of pending cases; for instance, if judges give fewer judgments in a day, this might result in an increase in pendency as well as undertrials. Similarly, writing long judgments by the judges might also add to the delay in passing the judgment.
Most pending cases are in the district and subordinate courts. The time taken to write these long judgments can instead be streamlined into giving other judgments to reduce pendency. Thus some sensitization, perhaps at the law school level, might help in overcoming some of these problems, while it might not be the only solution.
Q: What are your overall suggestions to unclog the court systems at the district level? Can live streaming help at the district level?
A: We do not think live streaming would work in the same way without adequate training of lawyers and judges. Pandemic-induced online hearing of cases did not lead to desired results in many places because of many reasons such as lack of the desired infrastructure. Technology is often said to be a panacea, but it is not so unless integrated with the human ecosystem of the relevant sector.
In fact, more than live streaming, the use of machine learning and AI may be better suitable for many cases that can be decided on a technicality, although it requires significant research in the Indian context. Importantly, again, we should go district by district. Perhaps we should first identify those 10 per cent districts where pendency is 2/3rd. Adopt some of those learnings, and then move to the remaining ones.