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by Shri Manmohan Singh++

Cite as : (2004) 7 SCC (J) 7

It gives me very great pleasure to be here with you today at this very important conference. Regular interactions between the legislature, the judiciary and the executive are indeed important as they provide an opportunity for exchange of ideas and views on key issues concerning the governance of this vast country. This is particularly so in the context of our desire to reform governance to make it more just, humane, participatory and equitable. The values of parliamentary democracy and constitutional government committed to the principles of equity, social justice, secularism, and above all, the rule of law are the very foundations on which governance must rest. To preserve and protect these vital values the three pillars of our Republic must work together hand in hand.

The institutions of governance fashioned by the founding fathers of our Republic has served us well over the last five decades. However, it is fair to state that many of the institutions have been of late showing signs of stress and today, the efficiency and effectiveness of many of these institutions are being questioned. There is growing dissatisfaction regarding the functioning of the executive and the legislature and their ability to deliver effective governance to meet the needs and challenges of our times. In this background, it is a matter of great satisfaction that the public at large continues to hold our judiciary in high esteem. The judiciary, as custodians and watchdogs of the fundamental rights of our people, has discharged its responsibility very well indeed.

The Supreme Court of India is a shining symbol of the great faith our people have in our judiciary and to our great pride the Supreme Court has earned high praise all over the world. Generations of learned judges have worked to uphold and to nurture this sacred national trust. They deserve our thanks. Our courts have protected our citizens from the exercise of arbitrary power and the inequities of a poor country trying to modernise itself. Though at times, some decisions have appeared controversial, the ultimate verdict of our people is and hopefully will always be that their constitutional rights are safe in the hands of our Supreme Court and our High Courts.

Yet there are aspects of our judicial system, which have come under increasing public scrutiny. There are concerns that are being voiced in some quarters about the delays in disposal of cases and the consequent backlog that has built up over the years. This concern about the cost of litigation and the cost of obtaining justice; about the number of undertrials in our prisons; about the conviction rate in criminal cases; and last but not the least, occasional noises about probity—or the lack of it—in some sections of the judiciary. While there is enough cause for pride in the quality and effectiveness of our judicial system, it is incumbent upon any healthy institution to continue to reflect from time to time on its role, on the expectations from it and on its deficiencies in the larger scheme of governance so that steps can be initiated to improve its performance to meet the fast-changing needs of the times that we live in. At the end of the day, a judicial system is a dispute resolution system and it must be recognised as a "service" which provides consumers expeditious and effective resolution of these disputes. It offers a mechanism for the enforcement of rights and obligations of individuals, a function which is essential in a functioning polity or economy. Therefore, an effective and efficient judiciary is an essential foundation of good governance.

The theme of this conference, "Justice in the 21st Century", is an appropriate occasion to reflect on the issues I raised a moment ago. What are the essential elements of an effective judicial system? What is the public perception about its performance? Which are areas where the system is showing signs of strain and which should be seen as early warning signs of possible greater problems to come in the future? What are the additional burdens that are going to be imposed on this system in this century and are current systems adequate to meet these? Are reforms in the judicial system going to be driven by endogenous forces emanating from the judiciary itself or will they need to be driven by forces external to the judicial system? It is my plea to this august assembly to deliberate on some of these questions for in answering these, we may arrive at some practical solutions to the challenges that our judicial system faces.

Having drawn attention to some of the issues, let me address some of these in the way I see them. While doing so, I do not intend to go into improvements in the procedural aspects laid down by codes and laws but will restrict myself to possible improvements in the capacities of courts to handle the tasks they have to accomplish.

The people of this nation rightfully expect speedy and effective justice. Justice delayed for a common man is justice denied. In delivering justice, courts are torn between two conflicting objectives—to deliver timely judgments while at the same ensuring that the rights of any party are not sacrificed at the altar of speed. At the moment, there is a perception that disposal of cases takes an unduly long time. At the same time, there is a backlog of cases that has been built up over the years. I have been informed that the total backlog in subordinate courts exceeds 20 million. In addition, delays in disposal of cases lead to the related phenomenon of undertrials being in prison for long durations without actually being convicted.

Delays in the judicial process also add to the costs of justice. Equality before law does not translate itself into equality in the real sense of the term unless there is equality of access to legal processes.

Increasing the costs of dispute settlement tilt the scales in favour of the better endowed. We need to be alert to this phenomenon and efforts must be made to reduce the backlog of cases, the time taken for disposal of individual cases and also the costs of litigation.

I am acutely aware of the fact that our judiciary is both overburdened as well as underprovided. This is a major causative factor in giving rise to the problems I have just mentioned above and this problem needs to be addressed if we have to make any progress in achieving the desired outcomes. I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate the commitment of our Government to provide whatever support is necessary to cut delays in our High Courts and lower levels of our judiciary. The National Common Minimum Programme exhorts our Government to stay faithful to this object.

The problem of reducing backlog could be addressed in two ways. One is by reducing the load on courts and judges. The other is by improving the productivity and efficiency of our courts so that they can process more cases and in a faster manner. The two approaches, if combined, could lead to a dramatic improvement in the situation as it obtains at present.

One way of reducing the load on courts is to reduce the quantum of cases that come to the courts. A sample survey conducted in Karnataka found that in 65% of civil cases, the Government was a litigant, sometimes on both sides. Government litigation crowds out the private citizen from the court system. Much of this government litigation is in the form of appeals and this survey again found that 95% of government appeals fail. In a way, they are appeals that shouldn't have been made in the first place.

In 1994, our Government had convened a meeting of law ministers and law secretaries that had resolved that "disputes between the Government and public sector undertakings (PSUs), and one PSU and another PSU ought not to go to courts or tribunals, and that such disputes should be settled between the parties amicably". This unfortunately has not happened. Our Government will now ensure that this decision is effectively implemented. This step, along with a better assessment of which judgments are to be appealed against, would lead to some reduction of cases in courts.

Another way of reducing the burden of cases is to have alternate dispute resolution systems. We have tried out Lok Adalats, Women's Courts, Family Courts and Fast Track Courts and Tribunals. Their performance needs to be assessed and if necessary, they must be strengthened so that they can take some of the burden off the regular courts. We have also not fully exploited the potential of alternate dispute resolution mechanisms like conciliation, mediation and arbitration. If they are made more efficient, the demand for adjudication will decrease. I request this august gathering to discuss more on the possibilities in this regard.

At the government level we are also making efforts to reduce the incidence of litigation. A great deal of litigation is the product of inefficient and non-transparent laws, as for example in the case of many of our tax laws. A harmonised and rationalised tax structure is on our reform agenda. Once this is done, the causes for adjudication will diminish. We have also decided to establish National Tax Tribunals, which I hope will reduce tax-related litigation.

Within the courts themselves, I recognise the need for increasing the capacity of the system to handle cases irrespective of any process improvements. There is a physical limitation to the quantum of cases any judge can handle. The argument for more judges and for larger Benches is a valid one. The Chief Justice of India has, inter alia, drawn my attention to the problem of increasing pendency of cases in the courts, and I am convinced that we must increase the strength of the Supreme Court Bench. This will enable the Court to adjudicate more speedily and address the issue of the regular functioning of the Constitution Bench of the Court and the demand for constituting larger Benches. Similar expansion in capacities will have to be considered at the State and subordinate levels as well.

While reduction in the caseload is one side of the coin, increasing the efficiency and productivity of the judiciary is the other side. There is, I submit in all humility, scope for improving the productivity of existing resources and I am sure the courts will deploy modern technology as ably demonstrated by the Supreme Court itself. Data on pendency of cases in the Supreme Court indicates that between 1991 and 2002 there was a short reduction by 80%. In the same period, pendency in High Courts has increased by nearly 30%. There is the scope for improving court management through the use of information technology and of improved case management methods.

I also believe that in the administration of justice, information technology has not as yet been used as an effective tool. Advancements in modern science and technology can make judicial processes more efficient. The use of modern technologies in criminal investigations and courts, in the realm of both substantive and procedural laws, should be welcome. Laws could incorporate use of such technologies to quicken the pace of the judicial process. The Supreme Court and the Union Ministry of Science and Technology may work together and suggest ways and means of using these modern technologies to help the judicial system reform its processes. Such changes could be made in a truly mission-oriented mode.

I also suggest that case management methods too could do with improvement at subordinate levels. There is a need to invest in the training and capacity building of all judicial officers so that they become more effective in case management and disposal. Some steps have been taken in this regard and our Government would be willing to support further efforts in that direction. In addition to the capacities of individuals, courts could develop collective mechanisms of review and monitoring so that performance of individual judges is monitored and causes of delay are addressed. In addition, mechanisms could be designed whereby best practices in one court or by an individual judge are rapidly disseminated across the entire judicial system. These monitoring, review and co-learning mechanisms should also incorporate other stakeholders in the judicial process as they also contribute to the efficiency and the effectiveness of the system as a whole. In this regard, one must mention that the support and cooperation of the Bar is as much essential as the commitment of judges and the judicial staff.

A related issue in the efficiency of the judicial system is the importance of having specialised judges. We live in a world where human knowledge is growing at a speed which was unthinkable two decades ago. This is the age of specialisation. The need for this is now accepted internationally. Chief Justices are recognising this need already and any moves in the direction of promoting specialised judges should be welcomed.

Also, a simple way of improving the productivity of the judicial system is by increasing the number of working days and cutting down on vacations. This is estimated to be equivalent to increasing the number of judges. This conference could come up with some recommendations in this regard.

I would like to assure the learned judges here that it will be my sincere endeavour to work closely with the Hon'ble Chief Justice and our judiciary to deal with the administrative and institutional challenges that our judiciary is trying hard to grapple with. The Hon'ble Chief Justice has drawn my attention to some other pending matters, as for example matters pertaining to facilities for law clerks and residential houses for judges and members of Tribunals and Commissions. The Government will address these issues forthwith in a favourable manner. Administration of justice requires additional resources and I assure you we will not be found wanting in this regard.

Finally, with your permission, I would like to conclude by bringing up an issue, which has been causing concern. The Indian judiciary, by and large, maintains high standards of efficiency and integrity. However, more than one retired Chief Justice has drawn attention to the growing incidence of corruption among certain sections of the judiciary. The confidence of the litigating public can be sustained only if, apart from efficient and effective justice, there is also a firm belief that judgments will be rendered without any extraneous considerations. The framers of our Constitution wanted to protect and preserve the independence of our judiciary. This places a greater onus and responsibility on the members and practitioners of our judiciary to maintain the highest standards of probity and integrity. Accountability and transparency norms cannot, and should not, be imposed on the judiciary from outside. It is, I believe, up to the judiciary to do some soul-searching and ensure how this can best be done.

A judiciary manned by judges with vision, wisdom and compassion can do more for justice and the welfare of the underprivileged than all the laws and policies we can think of. In its composition, I also believe, the judiciary must reflect the intellectual and social composition of our civil society, its diversity and pluralism. Enormous responsibility, therefore, rests on the higher judiciary for judicial appointments, which, under the present dispensation, are almost exclusively with the judiciary itself. There is an increasing focus on the issues of accountability of all organs of the States. Judiciary is no exception to this challenge. Therefore, methods have to be evolved in the light of the initiatives the Chief Justice of India might take in this regard. The executive would respond constructively to the initiatives in this matter.

For its part, the "judicial family" must consider the ills that face our judicial system with concern and find quick solutions for it. Any further delay in finding such solutions will only jeopardise the effectiveness of our judicial institutions. A mechanism for accountability, conceived and implemented by the judiciary itself, is the surest way to ensure judicial independence. An independent judiciary responding to the needs of our society goes a long way in strengthening democracy in our country.

Our nation is truly beholden to you for the dedication and commitment you have shown to the ideals of our Constitution. The phenomenon of public interest litigation is just one proof, if such proof were needed, of our people's trust in you and in our higher judiciary. It gives me great satisfaction to pay this sincere tribute to your work and to the contribution you have made to strengthen the foundations of our democracy and our Republic.

I conclude by wishing you all success and I look forward to your recommendations and conclusions eagerly. I thank you once again for this opportunity to share my views with this august gathering.

--- +On 18-9-2004 at New Delhi. Return to Text
++The Hon'ble Prime Minister. Return to Text

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