Indians need justice beyond speeches

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Highlights

Over 5 cr cases pending in various courts across the country

Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice of England in 1924, is often quoted as having said "Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done." It is a matter of great concern that, despite everybody talking about justice-delayed-is-justice-denied, a whopping five crore cases are pending in various courts across the country.

Even more disturbing is the fact that as many as 3.5 lakh people languishing in jails as undertrials. A classic case is that of one Suleman who has already spent 12 years in jail and whose bail application has not been cleared by Allahabad High Court despite the Supreme Court order that undertrials who are jailed for more than 10 years should automatically be granted bail.

The top court has come across cases which are even 15-year-old – thus forcing one-time offenders, and not convicted, spending their prime time in jails. The ambiance in jails is not exactly conducive for any human being. We have cases of accused becoming criminals and criminals emerging as hardened criminals. Successive governments have been talking about reforms.

Judicial and jail reforms are unfortunately not even part of these rhetoric. Kiran Bedi initiated some reforms at Tihar. But the process did not take off after that. Jails continue to remain hell holes. I have seen hundreds of families waiting outside the jails to meet their dear ones who are imprisoned. The scenes are just the same, be it at Chandrayangutta in Hyderabad, Arthur Road in Mumbai, Yerwada in Pune or Tihar in Delhi – anxiety writ large on the faces of the people – outside the jail.

The psychological pressure on families is much more disastrous than what is experienced by those inside. Remember, 'Mera Baap Chor Hai' line from Amitabh Bachhan-starrer Amar-Akbar-Antony? Imagine the plight of the undertrials' kids going to school or families visiting markets. Sadly, you don't have to imagine as these are the realities of the day.

Access to justice is another major issue. None other than Law Minister Kiren Rijiju highlighted this: Courts can't be only for privileged. Door of justice should always be equally open to all. He hit the bull's eye when he said: "People who are wealthy and resourceful get good lawyers. In Delhi's Supreme Court, many lawyers are unaffordable for common man. If lawyers charge 10-15 lakh per hearing, how can common man afford? Ideally, not every case need to go to the Supreme Court where you have to cough up lakhs of rupees. The judicial system should be able to settle most cases. That is like saying the sun rises in the east. But now that we are all talking of reforms – social, banking, political, business and so on - let us include judicial reforms too. Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav should be meaningful for all – from top to bottom. Mr Prime Minister, you are bang on when you say: Like Ease of Doing Business and Ease of Living, Ease of Justice is equally important in this Amrit Yatra of the country. Modi also said at the First All India District Legal Services Authorities last week: "As important as access to the judicial system is for any society, justice delivery is equally important. The judicial infrastructure also has an important contribution to this. In the last eight years, work has been done at a fast pace to strengthen the judicial infrastructure of the country."

Leave aside the stress on the performance during the last years which has now become a daily ritual for all Modi ministers. We shall discuss it later. Sticking to the justice part, the government of the day with all powers at its command and the bulldozing majority can easily bring in all the judicial reforms that it is talking about.

Chief Justice NV Ramana was even more vocal when he said "In our criminal justice system, the process is the punishment. From hasty indiscriminate arrests, to difficulty in obtaining bail, the process leading to the prolonged incarceration of undertrials needs urgent attention". Delivering an address at the 18th All India Legal Service Authorities Meet at Jaipur, he said: "We need a holistic plan of action, to increase the efficiency of the administration of criminal justice. Training and sensitisation of the police and modernization of the prison system is one facet of improving the administration of criminal justice."

Judicial reforms have been a matter of discussion for ages now. It is time judiciary and executive started working together on it and hastened the process in this Amrit Mahotsav year. The reforms also must take into account what the country's Law Minister is worried about – the lakhs of rupees that lawyers charge. There will be resistance. We have a system now in which medical treatment charges at various hospitals are supposed to be displayed. Can we not have similar system for legal treatment?

In a way, it is a treatment as lawyers and judges treat your cases based on the way they diagnose the merits, more than that the system of making lawyers' payments via the digital route. Come to think of it, many lawyers collect their fee in cash!

Another key aspect to be noted is that the Constitution of India remains a privileged document for very people as many do not understand the importance and the relevance of the rights that it guarantees. The CJI has hit the nail on its head when he said, "The sad reality is that the supreme document which defines the aspirations of modern independent India is confined to the knowledge of law students, legal practitioners, and a very small segment of the Indian population."

Sansad TVon May 16 had an interesting debate on judicial reforms and some of the points that arose were:

l A Law Commission report in 2009 had quoted that it would require 464 years to clear the arrears with the present strength of judges

l Burden of government cases: Statistics provided by LIMBS shows that the Centre and the States were responsible for over 46 per cent of the pending cases in Indian courts.

l The Supreme Court works on average for 188 days a year, while apex court rules specify a minimum of 225 days of work.

That's it. I rest my case.

(Writer is a Mumbai-based senior journalist)

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