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For fast track justice

Print edition : Jul 07, 2001

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About 450 fast track courts have been launched across the country to try long-pending cases, but doubts have been raised about their efficacy in curtailing judicial delay.

THE consequences of judicial delays for ordinary litigants are immense, and in some cases even tragic. Recently a senior citizen who had invested his life's savings in a non-banking financial company attempted self-immolation after a Delhi court granted yet another postponement of the proceedings for recovery of his savings from the defaulting company. Judicial delays, whether in cases involving high-profile persons or those relating to ordinary litigants, are indefensible, and so there is a dire need to mitigate their consequences.

The number of pending cases is indeed alarming. As on July 5, 2000, the total number of cases pending before the Supreme Court was 21,600 against 1.05 lakhs a decade ago. As for the High Courts, pending cases number 34 lakhs now, against 19 lakhs 10 years ago. The number of cases pending for more than 10 years is 645 in the Sup-reme Court and 5,00,085 in the High Courts.

One of the reasons attri-buted to the huge increase in the number of pending cases in High Courts is the non-filling of Judges' vacancies in time. There are more than 100 such unfilled vacancies.

The number of cases pending trial in the 12,378 district and subordinate courts in the country is estimated to be about two crores. Of the 12,205 posts of judges and magistrates in these courts, 1,500 are vacant.

There have been several proposals before the Union government to cut down on judicial delays. The launching of about 450 fast track courts on April 1 at the district level in various States has been one of the measures in this direction. Initially 1,734 such courts are proposed to be set up, at the rate of five in each district.

The Centre's proposal stems from the recommendation of the Eleventh Finance Commission (EFC), which has provided a grant of Rs.502.90 crores for the creation of additional courts, specifically to dispose of long-pending cases. Of this, more than Rs.200 crores has already been disbursed to the States. Funds have been provided for salaries and for building infrastructure, at the rate of Rs.29 lakhs for each court. Each fast track court will be asked to dispose of 14 sessions trial cases in a month.

In the first year, these courts are expected to dispose of all the 1.8 lakh cases involving undertrials. According to N.C. Jain, member, EFC, the scheme will help make enormous savings in terms of the expenses incurred over the maintenance of undertrials, who numbered 1,88,241 as on December 31, 1998. Jain estimates that the average cost per undertrial a day is Rs.55, covering food, medicine and clothing, with extra provision for sanitation and water, correctional programmes, and transportation to the courts and back. The annual expenditure on each undertrial thus comes to about Rs.20,000.

The maintenance of the 1.2 lakh undertrials in prisons across the country costs the government Rs.240 crores a year. This amount could be saved if cases against them were expeditiously tried and disposed of. The EFC has estimated that the annual recurring expenditure in respect of fast track sessions courts at the rate of five a district would be approximately Rs.87 crores. The net saving for the government would, therefore, be Rs.153 crores a year. Speedy trial of the cases against undertrials would also be an answer to charges of human rights violations.

The fast track court scheme envisages the appointment, for a tenure of two years, of ad hoc Judges from among retired sessions or additional sessions Judges, members of the Bar, and judicial officers who would be promoted on an ad hoc basis. The selection of Judges will be made by the High Courts. The Centre has directed the State governments to fill the vacancies that might arise in the wake of ad hoc promotions through a special drive.

The scheme suffered a setback when the Andhra Pradesh High Court issued an interim order on April 27 suspending the constitution of fast track courts in the State and the appointment of judicial officers to these courts. The High Court held that the scheme prima facie suffered from serious legal and constitutional infirmities. The Union government challenged the High Court's order through a Special Leave Petition (SLP) in the Supreme Court. The SLP contended that the High Court had committed an error of law in virtually allowing the writ petition through an ex-parte order on a mere prima facie view of the legality of establishing fast track courts without specifying the grounds. On May 2, a Supreme Court bench, comprising Justice B.N. Kirpal and Justice Ruma Pal, stayed the High Court's order.

IRONICALLY, even as the Supreme Court stayed the order, a Bench, consisting of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Justice A.S. Anand, Justice R.C. Lahoti and Justice Doraiswamy Raju, while hearing on May 2 a case on the status of undertrials in various States, regretted that the scheme of fast track courts, despite its crucial nature, was not brought to the notice of the CJI before the government made an announcement in that regard. The Judges observed that the funds released to the State governments to set up fast track courts should have been placed at the disposal of the Chief Justices of the High Courts, for proper utilisation. "If you are going to build buildings, and then select Judges, the fast track courts would become absolutely slow track," the Bench said.

The Bench observed that if the identification of the cases that the fast track courts should try and the areas they should cover was left to the discretion of the Chief Justices of the High Courts concerned the scheme would have worked better. The Bench also wondered how retired District Judges could be recruited as presiding officers and under whose jurisdiction they would be. Its critical observations have led to dismay, as Law Ministry sources claimed that the draft of the scheme had been sent to all States and the Chief Justices of all High Courts and it was introduced only after effective consultation with the judiciary at every level. These sources also claimed that only the Chief Justices of the High Courts would select Judges for appointment in fast track courts.

Although the sch-eme envisages that its functional aspect be left to the judiciary, it appears that the judiciary is not yet prepared to own responsibility for the scheme's success. Justice Anand observed: "It is very easy to pass the buck. The government first creates a mess and then requests the judiciary to clean it up."

There are genuine fears that litigants wielding influence at the district level could make use of the scheme in their favour to press for the expeditious disposal of cases they are interested in, which sometimes would result in the miscarriage of justice. The scheme leaves no scope for infusing fresh and young judicial talent, which is available in plenty. It is pointed out that the scheme proposes to appoint the very same retired Judges who had contributed to the creation of the huge backlog of cases.

There is no bar even under the present system to expedite the hearing of urgent cases by evolving formal court procedures rather than leaving it to chance. In the existing process decisions on applications for early hearing are routinely disposed of without considering the implications of any delay for poor litigants. It is highly probable that in the absence of a rational and sensible procedure to facilitate the expeditious disposal of cases, the fast track courts would make no difference to the huge backlog of cases.

The EFC has recommended the introduction of fast track courts primarily in view of the Union government's financial constraints. In fact, the grants the States had sought from the EFC to upgrade their judicial administration, which included the establishment of new courts, totalled Rs.4,870 crores. The EFC found it too large a demand and recommended the establishment of fast track courts as a way out. It was felt that the scheme of fast track courts would require a much smaller amount but help clear the backlog to a substantial extent by the end of 2004-05. Whether the scheme would really help address the larger issue of curtailing judicial delay in a big way is, however, a moot point.

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