Increasing the number of judicial courts is often seen as an easy panacea to the problem of access to justice in India. However, research on this is inconclusive. There is no formal document prescribing any formula or criteria that determine whether more courts are needed. We decided to examine this at the district level, where most litigation takes place. Informal discussions with judicial officers and an RTI application revealed that the creation of new administrative units such as new talukas or districts, the workload of judges, requests by the bar or litigants, and other considerations inform the decision of how many courts a district needs, but there are no official procedures or numerical thresholds for these criteria. This implies some arbitrariness in the process of calculating the number of judicial posts required.
Do more courts really help?
We used data from more than 3.7 lakh court cases to study the establishment of new courts in Karnataka’s Mysuru and Chamarajanagar. It showed that incremental increases in the number of courts did little to address delays. When a new court was established, cases were transferred to it from two other courts, reducing their workload. The time taken to resolve cases in new courts and the courts from which cases were transferred to them (which we call ‘transfer courts’) were compared to those in a reference group of courts that experienced no such change.
The results show that new courts and transfer courts apparently performed worse than this reference group. Disposal timelines in new courts were far longer than the reference courts, and although transfer courts performed better, cases still took longer compared to the reference group. There are two possible reasons for this. One is that the increase in the number of courts was insufficient to address the backlog of cases. The other is that many of the judicial posts may have been vacant. As per the latest statistics published online in the Supreme Court of India’s ‘Court News’ publication, 22 per cent of posts were vacant in district and subordinate courts across India, as of June 2019.
Using a better way to calculate the required number of judges is one essential step towards improving access to justice. The Law Commission of India has proposed various formulae, including thresholds for the number of judges per capita. However, these have failed to account for facts such as the variation between states in the number of court cases per capita, and that court cases themselves vary in complexity. The National Court Management Systems Committee under the Supreme Court suggested an interim formula, to be used until a better method is developed and adopted. It is based on a system developed to evaluate judges’ performance, called the ‘units’ system.
The system has been adapted to each high court, and has been designed to account for complexity of cases. However, how they do so is unclear since public documentation of the formula is unavailable.
A method that calculates the required number of judges would ideally be based on measurement of the demands of different case types in different regions, and would account for the amount of time available to judges. One such method is the ‘time-weighted caseload’ formula, which incorporates these factors.
Access to justice can also be increased by managing the duration of cases more effectively. High courts have adopted case flow management (CFM) rules, which specify timelines for the disposal of different types of cases. Courts have been unable to adhere to them due to deficiencies in infrastructure and personnel, and the persistence of outdated procedural rules. The CFM rules call for separation between substantive stages, in which the claims of parties are addressed by the judge; and non-substantive stages, consisting of administrative and procedural matters which do not take the case closer to resolution. The latter takes up much of judges’ time, but can be addressed by the court registry, which would allow judges to focus on substantive matters.
In addition, adjournments form a significant proportion of the life of a case. Rules should be enforced to limit the frequency and circumstances in which they can be sought. Finally, more systematic practices of scheduling hearings can ensure that all cases scheduled for a given day will be heard.
Part of the difficulty in increasing personnel and infrastructure in courts is that it is not possible to do so with the budgets that they presently receive. Improvement budgeting processes in the judiciary would help address this. Most funding for the district judiciary comes from state government budgets. However, district courts enforce Union legislation, and the bulk of cases are only heard by district courts. A re-evaluation of the sharing of fiscal responsibilities between the central and state governments is therefore necessary, given that the Union government depends on district courts too.
It is insufficient to say that more courts are necessary to increase access to justice, without addressing the institutional causes of the lack of capacity. This requires permanent solutions to problems of resource allocation in the judiciary, based on rigorous empirical investigation and development. These must be coupled with procedural and administrative reform to ensure that time and resources are used as efficiently and effectively as possible.
The author is a Research Associate at DAKSH, and has conducted research on the Indian judiciary for the last two years. Views are personal.
DAKSH partners with ThePrint to write about necessary reforms to the functioning of India’s subordinate judiciary. Read all the articles in the series here.