Justice and Injustice

Justice delayed means justice denied. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people who cannot afford costly as well as lengthy court proceedings suffer immensely. Agony of these people is not always reported in the media. Very recently the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) has brought into focus the horrific plight of one Mohammed Amir, who was released after 14-year-long incarceration in jail, destroying his youth, due to his wrongful arrest on the 27th February, 1998 from Old Delhi as an alleged ‘terrorist’ when he had just turned 18. The victim had been acquitted in 17 cases, including one by the High Court of Delhi. Amir was subjected to state action only on suspicion. Not an iota of evidence was produced in the court to connect Amir with any of the alleged crimes. Yet he had to spend 14 years in prison and this is the judicial system of India.

For one thing the very judicial mechanism that is glorified as an ‘independent’ divine institution is on the verge of collapse. There are 458 vacancies out of 1074, the full strength of the High Court Judges in India. And the situation in lower courts borders on catastrophe.

More than 22 million cases are currently pending in India’s district courts, six million of those have lasted longer than five years. A further 4.5 million are waiting to be heard in the high courts, and more than 60,000 in the Supreme Court. In 2016, only 0.2% of the government’s total budget was allocated to the Union Law and Justice Ministry, one of the lowest levels of funding in the world. Legal unheard cases are huge. The long queues of people waiting outside court buildings indicates that there is no guarantee of getting a complete hearing. India has one of the world’s lowest ratios of judges to population in the world, with 13 judges for every million people, compared with 50 in developed nations. As a result, scores of cases are heard every day, which leads to a large number of adjournments, and judges passing cases between them. The legal logjam has led to prisons become overcrowded, with more than 68% of inmates still on remand. Two-thirds of ongoing cases are criminal rather than civil. More than 93% of rape cases are still awaiting trial. People would rather bribe police or judge, than go through the lengthy hassle of a trial.

Between 2000 and 2014, 1800 death sentences were issued in India, but only four people have ben executed. The median wait for an appeal on a death sentence, is six and half years. One prisoner is reportedly waiting more than two decades to learn his fate. More than 95% of death sentences imposed since 2000, were overturned or commuted by higher courts. The prolonged uncertainty that prisoners faced, had a profound psychological effect on them. There is a complete lack of engagement between defence lawyers and their clients on death row. Lawyers were not inclined to do more, because of the ‘extremely low fees’ that defendants’ families were able to pay. Nearly 77% of the prisoners have never met their lawyers out of court. Their interaction in court was perfunctory. More than 77% of the prisoners are complaining that their lawyers did not discuss case details. Most lawyers talk to the prisoners about how they would get paid. Legal aid lawyers at the trial court and appellate court levels tried to extort money from the families of death-row prisoners, threatening not to turn up for hearings unless they were paid. The Supreme Court generally issues ‘‘stay orders’’ on the date of execution.

A lot is heard about legal aid forums, free legal service and all that. The reality is completely otherwise. Civil Liberties bodies issue press statements to highlight the plight of prisoners who are behind bars for years for no valid reasons. And NHRC takes suo moto cognisance of such issues on the basis of media reports as it did in the case of Mohammed Amir and grant some monetary relief. And in many cases the authorities do not pay the amount recommended by NHRC. It so happened in case of Amir also. So NHRC had to issue a show-cause notice to the Delhi government why monetary relief of Rs 5 lakh recommended by it, was not paid to the sufferer. Recommendation of relief is in the hands of NHRC but its implementation depends on the very persons in authority, who are responsible in the first place for denying justice to the victim.

Vol. 49, No.2, Jul 17 - 23, 2016