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India vows speedier justice as court cases pile up

Supreme Court working with ministry to recruit 6,000 judges as innocent suspects languish in jail for years awaiting trial

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Umar Manzoor Shah, New Delhi

Updated: November 13, 2018 11:11 AM GMT
India vows speedier justice as court cases pile up

Indian police stand guard outside a court where the case of controversial Indian guru Asaram Bapu was being tried in Jodhpur on April 25, five years after he was arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a minor. The court found him guilty of raping a teenage devotee on the pretext of ridding her of evil spirits. (Photo by Sunil Verma/AFP)

Kashmiri businessman Mohammad Hussain Fazili wasted 12 years in jail as he awaited his trial — only for the court to find him innocent in February 2017 and order his immediate release at the age of 43.

Like Fazili, thousands of people have lost years of their life behind bars in India due to the nation's heavily congested courts as they waited for a judge to hear their case, with millions still pending.

The Ministry of Law and Justice is now working with India's Supreme Court to fast-track the pace at which justice is delivered.

Plans are underway to recruit around 6,000 judges as a one-time measure to address the issue of pending cases in the country's courts, the mass-circulation Times of India reported on Oct. 22.

The two institutions plan to jointly conduct a nationwide recruitment scheme to fill over 5,400 vacant positions in the lower judiciary.

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In many cases, the agonizingly long wait is worse than the final punishment, Fazili told ucanews.com.

"The bigger question is, who will give me those 12 years of my youth back. I am not alone. There are thousands like me waiting to plead their innocence in the courts, but the system has no time for them," he said.

Police arrested Fazili in November 2005, days after a series of bomb blasts in New Delhi killed 67. He and two others, Rafiq Shah and Tariq Dar, were accused of carrying out the attacks.

A Delhi court on Feb. 16, 2017, acquitted Fazili and Shah of all charges, saying the prosecution had failed to substantially prove the allegations.

At least 33 million cases are still pending in various court of the country, India's Chief Justice Dipak Misra said in June, three months before he retired. He said the number was at "an all-time high" since the introduction of India's modern justice system.

According to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), an online portal monitoring the number of still-pending cases, the five states of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar and Gujarat account for almost half, or 14.5 million, of all pending cases.

India has the third-highest under-trial population in Asia, rights group Amnesty International said in its July 2017 report. It said about 280,000 Indians are being held in prison during their trials, or as they await trial, without having been convicted of a crime.

The report added that many have been languishing in jails for years, some for longer than the maximum sentence of the crime or crimes they are suspected of.

The rights group said these prisoners, known as "under-trials," account for two out of three people in India's prisons, a percentage far higher than in other democracies around the world.

The Indian Bishops' Conference was among those that welcomed the move to get them in front of a judge much sooner in future.

Cases have been steadily piling up in courts "because of a paucity of judges," said Auxiliary Bishop Allwyn D'Silva of Bombay, a member of the Indian bishops' justice, peace and development department.

"If this scarcity is addressed, it would benefit the common people, and we welcome the move," he said. "The growing number of pending cases is proving worrisome for everyone."

According to Arun Bakshi, a judicial activist based in the capital, the delays are being caused by an under-resourced and overburdened system as well as slow-acting investigative agencies.

"The justice system has to be overhauled and the staff scarcity in the courts addressed if the government wants to stop the epidemic of delayed justice," Bakshi said. "The time is fast approaching when people will no longer approach the courts, and lawlessness will prevail."

He said the courts must modernize and also advocated the introduction of "e-courts" — justice administered online — to ease the burden on the judicial system.

The federal government sanctioned the e-court project in 2014. It aims to computerize 8,000 new courts and make the status of cases available online. It also facilitates litigants filing petitions online and checking their case proceedings via a mobile app.

Vivik Kunwar from the Jindal Global Law School said another mechanism dubbed alternative dispute resolution (ADR) could be an effective way to ease the pressure on the court system.

"Courts could mandate that litigants must first exhaust all modes of ADR," Kunwar said. "This would not only decrease the number of pending cases but would substantially reduce litigation costs and ensure a timely and amicable resolution of disputes."

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