Dissecting delay

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Nitika Khaitan investigates the root causes of inefficiencies at Delhi High Court

Delays in courts across India are widely recognized as one of the biggest problems the country faces. The news media, leaders from the executive and the judiciary, and ordinary citizens all regularly complain about judicial delays. Horror stories of cases that have been delayed for decades are ubiquitous.

INADEQUATE REASONING

But this widespread coverage is reductive when it comes to the causes of delay. Delays are often attributed solely to the shortage of judges, both in their current and sanctioned strength.

A public spat between the executive and judiciary in 2016, for instance, continually highlighted India’s inadequate judge strength. Each side blamed the other for stalling appointments, and blamed such stalling for case delays. Reports in the media about case delays also typically cite a shortage of judges, and academics such as Bibek Debroy and Arnab K Hazra point to a disproportionate focus on the number of judges in the discourse on judicial reforms.

No doubt, the large number of judicial vacancies and a low judge-to-population ratio are alarming, and constitute an important factor leading to delays. But focusing only on the lack of judges diverts attention from other necessary reforms, instead offering up just one solution – appointing more judges – which is both long term and insufficient.

MULTIPLE FACTORS

Apart from the lack of judges, courts in India today are plagued by a number of other problems, which will persist and contribute to delay even if a sufficient number of judges are appointed. These problems receive little attention, partly because quantifying them poses significant challenges, especially compared to the ease with which vacancies can be cited.

Further, rigorous data-driven research on Indian courts is severely lacking. Although the Law Commission, various government committees, and a few independent academics and think-tanks have studied delays repeatedly, the studies have been limited by the poor quality of court data available.

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This piece is based on the report Inefficiency and Judicial Delay: New Insights from the Delhi High Court, authored by Nitika Khaitan, Shalini Seetharam, and Sumathi Chandrashekaran, all research fellows in the Judicial Reforms Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.