“A judge trying cases for days without end, in makeshift rooms cannot be expected to turn out optimal results.”
This is what the Supreme Court had to say in a 2016 report titled ‘Subordinate Judiciary – Access to Justice'.
The infrastructure and capacity constraints in the system have resulted in litigation pendency in Indian Courts. Every year, approximately 40,000 cases are filed before the Supreme Court, with the figure rising to 1.5 crores in the lower judiciary.
Since the number of cases instituted exceeds the ones disposed, pending cases have been growing astronomically year after year.
In 2018, it was projected that at the prevailing rate of case disposal, it would take over 324 years for our courts to clear the backlog. With pending litigations stacking up at 2.8 percent every year in the past decade, the situation is only expected to worsen.
Therefore, the critical question to ask is – does the country’s expenditure on its courts sufficiently cater to its ever-growing caseload?
How Much of the Budget is Allocated to Courts?
Even though in absolute terms, the allocation has increased by 87 percent since 2002, when calculated in terms of GDP or total expenditure, the allocation has in fact decreased for the same period (as observed in the table below).
In contrast, Brazil and Germany spent 1.3 percent and 0.32 percent of GDP respectively on their judicial systems in 2016.
Even at the state and UT levels, the situation is not very different. The India Justice Report 2020, which examined budgets between 2011-12 and 2015-16, revealed that except Delhi, no state or union territory in India spent even 1 percent of its budget on the judiciary.
To meet the country's increasing litigation demand, there has recently been a strong emphasis on digitalisation of courts, capacity building and revamping of infrastructure.
Spending on such reformative programmes, however, has either decreased significantly or increased only marginally over the years.
For example, in the latest budget, the budget for the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms – which subsumes schemes such as E-courts phase II and III, 'Strengthening Access to Justice in India' (SAJI), and 'Designing Innovative Solutions for Holistic Access to Justice in India' (DISHA) – was reduced by 70 percent from FY 2021-22.
Since 2018-19, the budget for the mission has steadily and significantly reduced, with total funds decreasing by a whopping Rs 456 crore. Similarly, expenditure on 'Infrastructure facilities for the judiciary' and ‘Administration of Justice’ has increased by only 9 percent since 2021-22.
So, why is judicial budgeting not adequately prioritised?
The Law Commission of India, in its 127th report on ‘Resource Allocation for Infrastructural Services in Judicial Administration’ made an important observation:
Because most governments did not see the administration of justice as an essential developmental activity, judicial infrastructure does not find much emphasis in either the five year or the annual plans. It is hardly surprising that our budgets reflect the same notion.
How is This Judicial Budget Utilised?
The Indian judicial system faces a peculiar dichotomy. While it is argued that the system has been crippled due to underfunding, evidence shows that the allocated funds are not efficiently utilised either.
For example, approximately 80 percent of the Rs 5,000 crore set aside by the 13th Finance Commission for improving judicial infrastructure/services went unspent.
Further, a 2019 study conducted by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy revealed that despite the Centre allocating Rs 7460.24 crores between 1993 and 2020 under a scheme for developing infrastructure (mainly for district courts), the district judiciary has only 17,817 courtrooms and 13,790 residential units available against a sanctioned strength of 22,750 judges.
This means a shortage of approximately 5,000 courtrooms and 9,000 residential units.
Historically, judicial budgets have only provided for the salaries and allowances of officials, along with minimum operational costs.
As per a study of six states conducted by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability and DAKSH, approximately 90 percent of the budget is used up in the establishment and operational costs of the judiciary, leaving a mere 10 percent for infrastructure development and systemic reforms.
This suggests that the judiciary’s budget falls tremendously short in providing for physical infrastructure and human resources that could eliminate the backlog from the system.
How Can We Make Things Better?
An adequate budget is a sine qua non for an efficient justice delivery system.
Slovenia’s Lukenda Project is the prime example of how increased investment in judicial reforms cleared backlog.
Following multiple rulings at the European Court of Human Rights for violations of the right to a fair trial owing to excessively lengthy proceedings, the country embarked on a comprehensive reform programme that included complete computerisation of courts, improved workplace conditions, standardisation of judicial proceedings, and the establishment of an electronic case management system.
As a result, case backlogs fell by 57.4 percent between 2008 and 2015. During the same period, the judicial budget constituted 0.5 percent of the country's GDP – the second-highest proportion among OECD countries, along with the highest justice expense.
For India, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice has repeatedly emphasised the requirement of increasing the funds allocated to judicial schemes and ensuring their efficient utilisation.
Unfortunately, these recommendations are generic in nature and do not address how we could go about doing that.
Thankfully, there are some specific measures that could address the problem.
1. Official Surveys & Transparency
Reports by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice in 2012 and 2015 have acknowledged the inconsistent allocations made to the states under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Infrastructure of Judiciary.
Therefore, conducting an official survey periodically to identify the shortages in courtrooms and residential units in every state and publishing the findings in the public domain, will help in justifying the allocations and enhance transparency and accountability when it comes to utilisation of allocated funds.
2. Budget Training for Judicial Officers
The Hon’ble Supreme Court has highlighted the lack of expertise of Judicial Officers in planning and preparation of budgets, as highlighted in the standing committee reports.
In this context, it would be useful to undertake training exercises for judicial officers on a priority basis and rope in professionals to assist in the budgeting process.
3. Ensure Financial Autonomy of Judiciary
Judicial independence, or the institution’s right to decide matters without interference, also includes independence from the executive in matters of resource allocation.
The government should view itself as a facilitator of judicial reforms and refrain from withholding funds or interfering with the judiciary’s right to appoint sufficient staff.
A constitutional amendment earmarking a fixed proportion of total government expenditure for the courts – as proposed by the National Commission for Reviewing the Working of the Constitution way back in 2001 – could go a long way toward ensuring this, as demonstrated in several Latin American countries.
Every year, India’s inability to deliver timely justice costs as much as 9 percent of our annual GDP. The bottlenecks in our judicial financial infrastructure are the leading, if not the sole cause for this. If the system is to be saved from collapsing, it is critical to eliminate these hindrances at the earliest.
(Geeta Kanwar is a law and policy professional working with the Member of Parliament. Radhika Varma is a penultimate year student of law at the Army Institute of Law, Mohali. This is an opinion article, and the views expressed are the authors' own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)