Calcutta Notebook
Judicial Reforms


The land of a factory was in dispute. The matter was decided by the High Court after 25 years. The land remains unproductive for all these years leading to lower production and economic growth. It is necessary to decide such disputes speedily so that productive resources do not remain idle. Speedy justice is an essential element of Rule of Law. It is seen that the developed countries have a higher rank in the Rule of Law Index. The 2019 Report of World Justice Project places United Kingdom on 12th rank, Singapore on 13th, United States on 20th and India on 68th rank. India has every reason to compete with Pakistan. Because Pakistan is placed at 117th rank. One can see that the developed countries also have a higher rank on the Rule of Law. Establishment of Rule of Law requires that adequate expenditures be made in the delivery of justice.

These expenditures have two opposite effects on economic growth. Increased expenditures lead to speedy disposal of cases and indirectly help economic growth. On the other hand, the same increased expenditures impose a burden on the budget of the Government and directly lead to a reduction in other expenditures such as on building highways which, in turn, lead to lower growth rate. However, as shown above, countries spending more on judiciary have higher growth rate. This means that the indirect positive impact of these expenditures is deeper than the direct negative impact.

A study of the World Bank has estimated that judicial delays are leading to a reduction in India's growth rate by 0.5 percent. The Institute for Economics and Peace has estimated that delays in criminal justice are leading to increased violence and costing India 9 percent of its GDP. The level of this negative impact could be a matter of debate, but it is clear that inadequate expenditures on the judiciary and delay in disposal of cases are having a negative impact on the economic growth.

One reason for judicial delays in India is the large number of vacancies in the judiciary. The vacancies were 15 percent in 2006. These increased to 37 percent in 2015 and have remained at about 37 percent in 2019. The budget expenditure on the judiciary was Rs 4386 crore in 2018-19. It has been cut to 3055 crore in 2019-20. No wonder India's rank in the Rule of Law Index has declined from 65th in 2018 to 68th in 20l9. It may not be a coincidence that growth rate too has declined in tandem.

According to one study, the Supreme Court works for 190 days in a year, the High Courts on an average of 232 days and lower courts just 244 days in a year. The Supreme Court and High Court go on a holiday for nearly two months in the summers. They also enjoy week-or fortnight long holidays during Dusssera and Christmas. There is absolutely no justification for the Judges being entitled to such holidays when the people of the countries are not entitled to such luxury and with crore of cases remaining pending before them.

Often the Judges were absent. At other times the advocate on the opposite side fell sick or feigned to do so. Such delays not only lead to delays in disposal of cases, they also impose a cost on the litigants which is a cost on the economy as well. It would be revealing to recount this writer's experience in the United States when he was studying. There was a dispute between three students and the landlord. The landlord took the students to court. The decision was given in mere 20 days—in favour of students.

There exists an unsaid understanding between the judges and advocates in favour of delay. Most advocates charge fees based on the number of appearances made in the court. It is profitable for them if the case is heard for a large numbers of times. They charge fees even if the judge is absent or the opposite lawyer seeks another date or falls ill. The judges have to work with the advocates. Thus, the judges do not want to hit at the source of the advocates' incomes either. This has led to the development of a culture of adjournments. There does not exist a forum where one could appeal against the Tribunal not following the law to which it owes its own existence.

The Cause List and Judgments of the Supreme Court and High Courts are available online. However, the pleadings on the basis of which the judgments were given are not available. The courts could easily ask the litigants to also file an e-copy of their submissions which could then be made available online. This would also make it possible for public activists to look at what was argued, what was accepted and what was ignored by the judges.

Such changes can improve the delivery of justice. The average time taken for the disposal of a case in Singapore in 1990 was six years. Then judicial reforms were implemented. By 1999, the average time for the disposal of a case reduced dramatically to mere 1.25 years. This happened despite Singapore having only 0.6 judges per one lakh population against India's having 2.0 judges. There is a need for the Supreme Court to study the experience of Singapore.

 [Formerly Professor of Economics at IIM Bengaluru]

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Vol. 52, No. 33, Feb 16 - 22, 2020