Here in Manhattan, we like to brag that we’ve got the busiest courthouse in the world. But at least the system can handle it. According to Tuesday report from the chief justice of the New Delhi High Court, however, the courts in India are all just as busy, but the system is so broken that they just can’t handle it.
The Delhi High Court, which has jurisdiction over civil, criminal and constitutional matters, is so overwhelmed that the chief justice estimates it could take 466 years just to wade through the 2,300 criminal appeals waiting to be heard.
The reasons for the backlog are not complicated. India’s justice system has a longstanding reputation for “corruption, inefficiency and lack of accountability,” according to this AP report, “often making the rule of law unattainable for all but the wealthy and the well-connected.”
Corruption and unaccountability are enough on their own to doom any judicial system. They destroy the perception of justice. And in the realm of justice, as in the worlds of finance and politics, perception is reality. If people think that crimes are not efficiently, consistently and fairly punished — whether truly so or not — then punishment loses its deterrent effect. If people think that the law does not consistently and fairly protect rights and interests — whether it does or not — then the law may as well not exist, and the rule of law becomes a joke.
As prominent New Delhi lawyer Prashant Bhushan puts it, India “only lives under the illusion that there is a judicial system.” Bribing judges, he adds, is commonplace: “It’s a lucrative business.”
And it doesn’t look like anything can be done about it, at least not in the short term. Corruption is a commonplace of Indian society, says retired Supreme Court justice J.S. Verma, so “of course corruption is there. The people who man the courts and the court system come from the society.”
On top of the systemic failure of the rule of law, the courts are under an enormous administrative burden as well. There are only 11 judges for every million people — there are ten times as many in the U.S.
The administrative burden is exasperated by the bureaucracy, which slows down the legal process with overstrict formalities and procedures that can overwhelm a layperson.
The administrative burden can be met by shifting resources to the judicial system, and by eliminating bureaucratic time wasters. Political decisions only. But of course that would only happen if the government wanted to do so. That’s a tall order when the ruling classes are the beneficiaries of the present state of affairs.
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