Full text of the PM's speech at the Conference of Chief Ministers & Chief Justices of High Courts. In response, the Chief Justice of India, Y.K. Sabharwal minced no words when he said, "The justice delivery mechanism appears to be on the verge of collapse due to diverse reasons. Some of the responsibility will have to be shared by the executive branch of the State."
It gives me great pleasure to be here today at the inaugural session of the conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices of High Courts. These interactions between different institutional wings of governance have immense value in promoting an exchange of ideas, in generating an increased understanding of issues and in developing a consensus on key areas concerning the governance of our vast country of ours.
The Hon’ble Chief Justice of India has referred to the need for finding effective mechanism to implement the resolutions and suggestions emanating from conferences like this. I wish to assure the Hon’ble Chief Justice that his suggestions for constituting appropriate mechanisms at the Centre and State levels to follow on the recommendations of the conferences of the Chief Ministers Chief Justices would receive our most urgent attention. Interactions, like these become particularly important and relevant in the times in which we are living – times characterized by rapid changes in technologies, social structures, human relationships, life styles, behavioral norms and last but not least, the socio-political milieu. In such turbulent times, all established institutions are subjected to varying degrees of stress and strain as a result of the diverse pulls and pressures they are subjected to by forces of change. It then becomes incumbent upon institutions - and particularly institutions of governance - to respond to these pressures and meet the emerging needs of times while upholding a core set of values and principles which transcend change. Conferences such as yours provide a platform for us to reflect and gain a better understanding of what is required of us to perform our roles, and in the context of the judiciary, a crucial role assigned to it by the founding fathers of our Republic. I hope this conference, which has as its theme "Justice: Accelerated and Affordable", applies itself to this task and comes out with useful suggestions. As I said earlier, our Government will work with the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India to give practical shape to suggestions/recommendations that may emerge from this august Conference.
At our last meeting in September, 2004 I had the opportunity to share some of my ideas on judicial reform and processes of governance. I was and I continue to be of the opinion that the Supreme Court of India is a shining symbol of the great faith our people have in our judiciary who see it as a protector from the arbitrary exercise of power and as a custodian of their fundamental rights. This is an impressive and enviable reputation which is the envy of many countries. I had then also spoken of the expectations from the judicial system, of the problem of systemic overload, of the need for speedy and effective justice, and of mechanisms for addressing these issues. The conference deliberated on many of these aspects and gave valuable recommendations. Since then we have acted on some of them and also taken several initiatives for which I would like to thank all of you, particularly the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India.
Like all institutions of governance, the judiciary too requires a periodic dose of institutional reform to keep pace with the societal demands. Our Government has accorded high priority to judicial reform. As my colleague the Hon’ble Minister of Law & Justice has mentioned, the National Common Minimum Programme lists judicial and legal reforms as one of the thrust areas of governance reform. The higher judiciary has been proactive in trying to improve and strengthen the judicial process and justice delivery system to make them more accessible, cost effective and less time consuming. The Government has also taken steps to improve the working of the judiciary keeping in mind the needs of litigants, particularly, those belonging to the poorer sections. But I do agree with the Hon’ble Chief Ministers that we cannot be satisfied with the status quo, that we must set our sights step higher still.
As the theme of the conference highlights, Accelerated Justice is an essential component of an effective judicial system. And speedy delivery of justice also reduces the cost to a litigant, thus making it affordable. In this context, the problem of pendency of cases in lower courts, and in some cases even in High Courts, requires urgent attention. Speedy justice is an assurance extended to a citizen under the ambit of `right to life’ guaranteed under Article 21 of our Constitution. Speedy justice can renew our people’s faith in the administration of justice and in the `rule of law’. These constitute the bedrock of our democracy.
I learn that there are over 30 lakh cases pending in High Courts and over 2.5 crore cases pending in subordinate courts. The arrears seem to be increasing every year as disposal of cases is less than the institution of new cases. I entirely agree with Hon’ble Chief Justice that this is a totally unacceptable situation and I will ask the Government to reflect in what way the Central Government in cooperation with the State Government can come back to a Conference like this, in the future, to ensure that we have taken effective action to deal with this pressing problem. This is a matter of concern and one worries whether the system can continue to bear such an ‘overload’. At the last conference, I had mentioned the need to address this through both load reduction and productivity enhancement. Since then, some steps have been initiated to reduce delays in justice delivery and pendency in courts. These include computerization of courts at all levels, setting up of Fast Track Courts and reducing vacancies of judges.
Computerization can help enhance the productivity of judicial work. It can create an accessible data base to help both judges and lawyers; it can help case management and courtroom management; it can speed up judicial work by removing the need for paper based transactions. Recognising the utility of this tool, the Government has approved a proposal for the computerization of district and subordinate courts at a cost of Rs. 384 crores. An E-committee set up, on the advice of the Chief Justice of India, to monitor implementation of computerization of the judiciary has also submitted its report on the National Policy and Action Plan for the Implementation of Information & Communication Technology in the Indian Judiciary. This report is under active consideration of our government. I believe that these measures will go some way in increasing the use of technology in judicial work.
Last year, the government extended the term of Fast Track Courts, for another 5 years, upto 31st March, 2010. A sum of Rs. 509 crore has been provided for this programme. This, I believe has made a dent in the reduction of the backlog of cases in courts. The criminal law has been amended so as to introduce the concept of plea bargaining. We can also consider the idea of appointing retired personnel as Special Magistrates for dealing with petty offence cases. This measure can reduce the case load in courts.
A major issue we are facing is the large number of vacancies of judges in the High Courts and subordinate courts. I will appeal to the Chief Ministers to process these proposals as expeditiously as possible when they receive them from the Chief Justices of their respective High Courts. Our Government would like to work closely with the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India and his Collegium for speedily filling up these vacancies. State Governments may also consider increasing the number of courts at the level of Magistrates and District Courts on the basis of pendency. We must also ensure that recruitment examinations are held in time and frequently so that the vacancies among lower judiciary are filled up in time.
The Ministry of Law and Justice is also engaged in drawing up a Gram Nyayalayas Bill as my colleague, the Hon’ble Minister for Law & Justice mentioned a few moments ago. . The main objective of these local courts will be to secure justice, both civil and criminal, at the grass root level to our citizens. This would be the lowest court of subordinate judiciary and shall provide easy access to justice through litigant - friendly procedures, use of local language and mobile courts where necessary. Such Gram Nyayalayas would genuinely make justice accessible and affordable at the grassroots.
While the institutions of governance fashioned by the founding fathers of our constitution have served us well over the years, we have to ensure that the credibility of the system is maintained. There is need, therefore, for optimum use of available infrastructure and resources. We must improve the quality of personnel and court management techniques. I am confident that this conference will come up with practical suggestions on improving the capacity of our judicial system.
We also need to improve the utilization of existing laws and regulations. The National Legal Literacy Mission was recently launched by the National Legal Services Authority which is chaired by the Hon’ble Chief Justice of India. The objectives of the Mission to promote knowledge of legal rights and awareness of availability of legal assistance are indeed very laudable and they need whole-hearted support. We are looking into improving the budgetary support for this very important programme.
As the custodians of the fundamental rights and freedoms of our citizens, our judiciary has an enormous duty and responsibility towards all litigants. We must, therefore, have an effective mechanism to ensure judicial accountability while at the same time maintaining the independence of the judiciary. The nation is proud of our judicial system, but it also expects it to deal with the infirmities and inadequacies that remain. The judiciary must remain in step with changing times even as it remains committed to its basic values and purposes.
I would also like to draw your attention to two issues which are also becoming a matter of debate. One is the issue of Public Interest Litigation. A highly commendable mechanism when it was initiated, we need to reflect whether we have reached a stage where the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, whether it has become a tool for obstruction, delay and sometimes even harassment. A balanced approach in taking up PIL cases, I am certain, will continue to keep PILs as a potent tool for rectifying public ills. In a similar vein, I feel that judicial activism too must be used in a restrained manner to fill up any institutional vacuum or failure and to clarify legal positions, retaining its character as a powerful but sparingly used instrument for correction. Judicial activism must also take adequately into account the administrative viability of the reform process.
From time to time, various suggestions have been received from many quarters for improving the working of the judiciary and helping litigants, especially those belonging to poorer classes. These include elimination of unnecessary arrears in High Courts and subordinate courts, including through frivolous litigation; decriminalizing petty offences; appointment of ad hoc judges to clear pendencies; and, revision of Supreme Court Law Reports to weed out confusing and superfluous judgments. We also need to seriously look at suggestions for an All India Judicial Service, a formal mechanism to provide a mode of self-scrutiny of the conduct of judges, and for ensuring independence of the judiciary. The Government, in consultation with the judiciary, is actively considering all these matters.
Our government is committed to judicial reforms and would extend all possible assistance in this regard. The Government is in the process of drawing up an action plan for a holistic approach to judicial reforms. Since judicial reforms encompass a wide area, covering multifaceted issues such as infrastructure upgradation, legal changes, skill upgradation, alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and other elements, the attempt would be to deal with as many of these issues as possible.
I do recognize that we have to improve the service conditions of those who man the judiciary to be able to attract better talent. Our Government has implemented many of the recommendations of the National Judicial Pay Commission. Judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts are now entitled to more liberalized perquisites and allowances. There are several incentives for meritorious, talented and eminent advocates to be appointed as Supreme Court Judges. The issue of enhanced post retirement benefits for judges is under active consideration of the government and we have just approved enhanced benefits to retired Chief Justices of India. The Government is presently considering a proposal to increase the age of retirement of High Court Judges.
Finally, an important aspect of the reform and modernization of the judiciary and improving the incentive mechanism, is to tackle corruption in the judiciary. Instances of corruption have now begun to surface in our judicial system too. The higher judiciary must address this challenge and show the way forward to the rest of the system. And in this context, what has been stated by Hon’ble Chief Justice of zero tolerance for corruption is something I greatly welcome.
As a lay man I can only look at the problem from the outside, as it impinges on common people. Apart from delay in settlement of cases, lengthy court procedures, frequent adjournments, evidence taking procedures, corruption in the judiciary, these are some of the problems of public concern that must be addressed. I suggest that these matters be examined in the light of the difficulties faced by the common litigants and reforms initiated in the judicial and legal process in keeping with the basic principles enunciated in our Constitution. We are living in an era of increasing public awareness and consciousness. As awareness rises, expectations rise as well. The manner in which some cases are being prosecuted, particularly where cases fall because witnesses turn hostile or change their evidence, these are causing concern to ever increasing sections of our society. There is a need for all of us to reflect whether the existing procedures are adequate and foolproof; whether we are using all available provisions to prevent deviant behaviour; and whether we need new provisions in law so that the justice system is seen, in fact, to deliver justice and in time.
I have great faith that Justice Sabharwal and his learned senior colleagues will lead and guide our judiciary to achieve the formidable goal of reducing pendency and providing speedier and more affordable justice to the common man. In this endeavour, they will be fully supported by our government and, I hope, by all State governments. I also urge Chief Ministers to make available the necessary infrastructure needed by our courts to ensure their effective functioning.
I hope this Conference will be purposeful and productive. May your path be blessed.
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