Above: As cases pile up in courts, litigants wait for years before their disputes get settled. Photo: UNI
Constant adjournments have led to a huge pendency of cases in India and it is up to judges and lawyers to ameliorate the situation
~By Justice K Sreedhar Rao
The malaise of huge pendency of cases in our country is affecting the legal system, resulting in people feeling hopelessness about its efficacy. The problem of pendency also hit legal systems of Europe earlier. The famous quote of Voltaire aptly sums up the common man’s plight in our country:
“I was never ruined but twice: once when I lost a lawsuit, and once when I won one.”
There are two types of litigants: one who misuses the system to protect himself and who continues to take undue advantage of it, and the other who genuinely approaches for relief.
It was perhaps the perception of Colonial lawmakers that Indian litigation is actually driven by those who misuse the system. Therefore, the Code of Civil Procedure and the Code of Criminal Procedure are heavily loaded in favour of the defendant or the accused.
Chief Justice Dipak Misra too had bemoaned the adjournment of cases, which largely contributes to delay in their disposal. This pendency has assumed alarming proportions.
The causes for pendency may be many, such as lack of clarity or loopholes in the law, inadequate number of judges, lack of learning and sincerity among advocates and non-cooperation with the courts for expeditious disposal of cases.
When a litigant is enjoying an undue advantage and if delaying legal proceedings is the only relief, it is quite natural that he will resort to undesirable tactics to forestall the expeditious disposal of the case.
It is, therefore, painful to note that one research institute unearthed the fact that a company petition in Karnataka High Court was awaiting admission since 1985. In Calcutta High Court, a civil suit was pending for 173 years; it was filed prior to the establishment of the court 144 years ago. There are nearly 2.96 crore cases pending in subordinate courts and 5,000 more judges are needed to tackle pendency. In high courts, 31,16,492 civil cases are pending, and out of them, 5,98,631 cases have been pending for over a decade. Also, 10,37,465 criminal cases are pending there and out of them, 1,87,999 were pending for over a decade at the end of December 2014.
Order 17 Rule 1 of the Code of Civil Procedure governs the adjournment of a case by the court. While advocates blame the judge for adjourning complicated cases, judges blame advocates for seeking adjournments on frivolous grounds.
There was an attempt in 2003 to amend Order 17 Rule 1 CPC to disable an advocate from seeking adjournment on the ground that he is engaged in another court. In fact, no research or audit has been done on how effective the amendment has proved for expediting the early disposal of cases.
The days of a devoted and disciplined bar have become a thing of the past. Except for the Supreme Court, in all high and subordinate courts, strikes by lawyers are commonplace. The bar no longer fears the judge. It is the judge who fears the bar nowadays.
Efforts have to be made on a war-footing to overcome the reasons for pendency. The present system of listing and calling of cases envisaged under Order 17 Rule 1 requires to be replaced by explicit and detailed regulated procedures. The present practice of over-listing of cases keeps the judge, the lawyer and the litigant in suspense as to which case will be heard and decided. This perhaps gives wide scope for adjournments and wastes judicial time.
Cases which are at the preparatory or preliminary stage and not ripe for effective hearing, evidence or arguments should not be listed for the judge to hear. The registry of the high court or the chief administrative officers of subordinate courts should attend to the preliminary and preparatory work of a case. Listing of cases should be limited and proportionate to the judicial time available for effective disposal for the day.
Also, a case once listed, for hearing, evidence or arguments should never be adjourned at any cost. Seriously discipline should be instilled in effectively conducting the case listed for the day. Such a rigorous practice would help in ameliorating the situation and instill confidence in the public and would refurbish the sagging image of the system.
—The writer is former acting chief justice
of the Karnataka and Gauhati High Court