What is so obviously needed
The report of the Senate Committee of the Whole (December-2015) suggests reforms in the existing justice system: It proposes certain amendments in the civil and criminal law to ensure inexpensive and speedy justice in the country. However, it conveniently ignores the role of relevant stakeholders. Legal amendments are necessary to deal with delays; however, amendments in the procedure alone are never sufficient. Amendments pertaining to the training and conduct of key stakeholders, i.e. lawyers and judges, is equally important.
The report basically provides timelines for the conduct of civil and criminal cases. Regarding civil suits, the report proposes that the limit for filing a written statement shall not exceed two months; pre-trial hearings shall be made mandatory (providing a ‘Case Scheduling Order’); rules shall be amended to provide a timeline for the payment of process fees; the trial court shall pronounce a judgment within 30 days; any first appeal shall be decided within 45 days; and first and second appeals by the High Courts, as well as the hearing in revision and constitutional jurisdiction, shall be decided within 60 days. It recommends the abolition of revisional powers and intra-court appeal. Moreover, it suggests an increase in the number of judges in the district judiciary and the Supreme Court to rationalise the judge-to-case ratio. The report further suggests frequent use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms.
In criminal cases, the report stresses the timely completion of investigation and the submission of a report within 14 days and the conclusion of a trial within six months. It says that criminal cases may be adjourned only in exceptional circumstances and not for more than two days with no more than two to three adjournments during the whole trial. It further suggests the training of investigation officers and the protection of witnesses, prosecutors, and judges, especially in cases of heinous crimes including terrorism cases. It also proposes consequences of default for litigants through a cast-iron statutory opportunity of a one-time extension of time by a judicial order leading expressly to a guillotine. Finally, it recommends provision of free legal aid at every bar association level so that all cases could be concluded expeditiously.
The report merits deep appreciation as it recommends reforms to our justice system. However, the report fails to suggest changes in the laws regulating the professional conduct of lawyers and judges. It rightly points out that reason for delay in the disposal of suits involves the granting of frequent and unnecessary adjournments. Surprisingly, it fails to trace the reasons or suggest the means for reducing adjournments. Adjournments on the part of litigants and the executive branch of our government notwithstanding, the conduct and expertise of lawyers and judges may be one factor leading to excessive adjournments. Adjournments are often sought and granted on the grounds that the counsel is busy before another court or the bar has announced a strike. The courts seem to be conveniently granting adjournments even on the lame excuses i.e., the counsel is busy in bar elections. Leftovers and adjournments have become the norm and proceedings an exception. Neither do the courts appear to regulate the non-appearance of counsel, nor do the lawyers seem to realise that due to frequent adjournments our justice system as a whole is fast losing its efficacy and credibility in eyes of the people. Many times hearings in cases are postponed with little appreciation of the fact that it wastes lots of state resources and time of concerned stake holders. Indeed, it raises serious questions as to the overall performance and management of our justice sector. When delays occur, the report suggests measures for litigants but not for lawyers and judges. Any system of effective accountability of the bench and bar is missing from the report.
Adjournments can be reduced by providing adequate training and consequences for the bench and the bar. Thus, appropriate amendments should be made in the laws dealing with the training and professional conduct of lawyers and judges. Only those should be allowed to steer the chariot of justice who meet a specific performance threshold. Failing to conduct cases within the prescribed time limits should attract appropriate action against those who are found responsible in causing delay in the disposal of cases. The bar councils should regulate members of the legal profession. The apex courts should set examples of high performance and efficient accountability, increasing overall efficacy of our legal system. Dealing with old cases at priority while allowing the new cases to get older is only a ‘part of the problem’.