Friday, July 23, 2010

Infrastructure in sub-ordinate courts (All India Judges Association v. Union of India): 14,008 courts need nearly $2 billion for upgrade

Infrastructure in sub-ordinate courts (All India Judges Association v. Union of India): 14,008 courts need nearly $2 billion for upgrade

- Vrinda Maheshwari at Bar and Bench . com

The Law Minister at a press conference today announced a Rs. 14,000 crore package to be rolled out over the next five years to tackle the backlog of 2.71 crore pending cases. Bar & Bench provides in-depth coverage on the infrastructure needs of the sub-ordinate courts, as discussed in the Supreme Court order in All India Judges Association v. Union of India (AIJA vs. UOI) which details the levels of investment that is required in each state.
AIJA vs. UOI, which is being heard by the CJI, Justices Aftab Alam and K.S.Radhakrishnan considered the infrastructure in the subordinate judiciary. Senior Advocate Fali Nairman has been appointed as the amicus in the case while Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium is appearing for the Government. The AIJA has been represented by advocate ATM Sampath. A little background on the issue is necessary to understand the implications of the judgement.
Administration and organization of the lower judiciary (district courts, mofussil courts) has been placed in the concurrent list under Entry 11A of List III. Lately, the abysmal state of infrastructure and lack of amenities in the lower courts have become matters of grave concern. It has been noted that the woefully inadequate infrastructure for both judges and lawyers in over 15,000 lower courts slows down the entire justice delivery system.
The Shetty Commission Report, which was submited to the Supreme Court on July 12, 2010 (Shetty Commission) has been registered by the Supreme Court as an Interlocutory Application. The Bench, headed by the CJI, will spend the afternoon session every Monday to discuss and revisit the infrastructure problems of sub-ordinate courts.
The Shetty Commission sought to highlight the various problems with the mofussil courts, including the lack of infrastructure and the various problems faced by them. Recommendations of the Shetty Commission were accepted by the Supreme Court in AIJA vs. UOI as far back as 2002.
Facts and Statistics:
As per the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, Rs. 1,102 crores ($244 million) have been sanctioned as assistance to the States and Union Territories up to March 2010. The Department of Justice has estimated that around Rs. 1,550 crores ($344 million) needs to be provided through domestic budgetary support in the 11th plan period for the construction of courts, provision of residential accommodation etc.

The Department of Justice sent a letter with a format of a questionnaire for assessing the infrastructural needs of various States. The Government estimate indicates that the infrastructure needs of the District and subordinate courts in the States (excluding Delhi, Allahabad and J&K) is around Rs. 7,077 crores ($1.57 billion), around Rs. 2,162 crores ($480 million) of which is needed this year itself. A very detailed report has been prepared by the Ministry of Law and Justice, which details the data regarding court complexes, buildings, the infrastructure needed and the cost, with a year by year breakup.
The Government is yet to estimate the infrastructure needs of lower courts which are part of the Allahabad, Delhi and J & K High Courts. Bar & Bench had reported the pending statistics released by the Supreme Court late last week. According to those statistics, lower courts under the Delhi High Court jurisdiction have a backlog of 0.9 million and lower courts under the Allahabad High Court have a backlog of more than 5.4 million. Bar & Bench research indicates that Uttar Pradesh alone needs 2,184 Court Halls, Delhi needs 605 Court Halls and J & K needs 207 Court Halls. This means an addition of 2,996 courts to the existing 11,012 courts taking the total to a whopping 14,008 courts. If we presume that the infrastructure spend in these 2,996 courts is similar to the national average of Rs. 75 lakhs ($1,66,000) per court, then an additional budgetary allocation of Rs. 2,247 crore ($499 million) is required to build additional infrastructure. This would mean a total infrastructure spend of Rs. 9,324 crore ($2.07 billion).
Suggestions by the Shetty Commission report:
  1. Infrastructure of the courts has been included as a “planned item” by the Union government, to enable it to fund its betterment to some extent. However, what happens is that the amount to be contributed by the Centre is made dependent on the amount coming in from the State government, which can be rather unpredictable. This leads to a constant decrease or sliding down in the actual amount of money that goes in.
  2. Fines and costs which have been deposited in the State government accounts are not being used for the betterment of the judiciary, when in fact they total a large amount and are not being utilized in an effective manner. If the State and Central governments co-operated, the funds which are generated internally and are being wasted right now, could be employed in a useful manner.
  3. The report which makes various State governments as respondents through their secretaries, registrars, administrators etc. will consider the working conditions of the subordinate judiciary, both in terms of the working as well as the residential premises of the judges, and it was noted that the amenities available varied as per State.
  4. A five year plan needs to be prepared by each State with a view for planned improvement in the infrastructure of the courts and the facilities and amenities that are to be made available. As per the plan that would be drawn up, half the expenditure is to be shared by the Central government. The Centrally Sponsored Scheme has been in place since 1993-94, where the grants of the State government are matched by the Central government in order to develop the infrastructural facilities of the judiciary. However, the scheme has not been implemented well and the funds have not been utilized in an appropriate manner.
  5. The Report has advocated the formation of a three tier committee system: a District Committee (at the District level), a State Committee (at the State level) and a Monitoring Committee (at the Central level).
  6. Perhaps the most important aspect of the report is the section on raising revenue, since it is recognised that lack of funds is one of the chief reasons that plans for betterment of infrastructure never reach fruition. The report tackles this problem by a two fold solution. The first is the utilization of costs, fines and court fees by the judiciary. The report recommends that an “infrastructure” head of account or a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) be created; the costs, court fees and fines can be deposited here, and the funds can be used for construction and maintenance of court buildings, computerization, furnishing, and other general development of infrastructure of the courts. The Monitoring Committee would help in the administration of the SPV. Some issues of conflict could arise, since the Central government is effectively having a regulatory power over the working of the State Committee, which might lead to tension. The second solution offered by the report is the rationalizing of the Court Fee Act, updating it so that it is more realistic. It gives the example of cases under Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, which crowd the courts in urban areas and block litigation of all natures; yet the court fee for such a complaint is Rs.1.25. Similarly, OMPs (Other Miscellaneous Petitions) can be submitted by paying a Court fee of just Rs. 20, though applications of this nature (for example, interim measures in arbitral proceedings) often consume a lot of effort and energy. Rationalizing the Court Fee Act in matters of such commercial litigation only makes sense and would not be discordant with the actions of a Welfare State either.
The problems highlighted by the Shetty Commission Report, as discussed in the AIJA vs. UOI, definitely need to be addressed post haste; the figures and surveys make for a compelling argument indeed. The Court has advocated urgency in the implementation of the Report; it now remains to be seen whether the deplorable state of infrastructure in the lower courts can actually be improved.
Click to download a copy of the Supreme Court order in AIJA vs. UOI and the Shetty Commission Report.

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