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Run-up to the Budget 2010 »Budget Columns»Budget Columns Details
Budget Columns Details
Budget 2010

M J Antony: Budgeting for justice

M J Antony / New Delhi 17 Feb 10 | 12:02 PM
70 Replies

This is the time when lobbyists descend on the national and state capitals seeking benefits in the coming budgets. Every fringe group and profession has someone to pursue its case. But there is hardly anyone to speak up for the judiciary. Budget after budget, expenditure on this vital sector has remained in the range of 0.2 per cent of the gross national product (GNP). Half of this is recovered by the states through court fee and fines. These also flow into the general pool of the Budget, to be spent on government’s populist projects.

No wonder the jails accommodate inmates many times their capacity. “Undertrials&" among them often stay there longer than the maximum sentence prescribed for the offence that they are charged with. The latest figures released by the Supreme Court show that the arrears are mounting and have crossed the three-crore mark.

Chief justices of India have lamented for decades the tight purse held by the government when it comes to improving the working of the legal system at all levels. YK Sabharwal said: “Most of the courts function from dingy, dilapidated and outdated structures with poor hygienic conditions even for judicial officers.&" A S Anand said: “Till such time as financial and administrative powers are vested in the judiciary, the state should not hesitate to lay more expenditure for the efficient management of the judiciary. As the position stands at present, every high court and the judicial system itself is starved of funds.&"

Chief Justice of India (CJI) KG Balakrishnan has pointed out that nearly 60 per cent of litigation at all levels relates to Central laws. Therefore, the Union should adequately contribute to the expenditure on better administration of the courts like setting up of more courts and appointment of more judges. As it is, even the sanctioned strength of judges in the high courts and subordinate courts is not filled up for years. At last count, there were 254 vacancies in the high courts, and 2,746 in courts below. Against the Law Commission suggestion of 50 judges for 10 lakh people, the present ratio is 10.5 for 10 lakh. New laws are passed in every session of Parliament and the expenditure on them is not estimated. The CJI has recommended the US practice of making necessary financial allocation in the Bill itself, after a “judicial impact assessment&".

Similar ideas are not wanting. In a 2001 consultation paper on financial autonomy of the judiciary, it was proposed that a judicial council should prepare a budget and take it to the executive for mutual and effective consultation. It should be made part of the general Budget. Financial advisers from the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) should be involved in the procedure and they should monitor the disbursement and expenditure.

These suggestions, like others, have remained in the upper racks of the law ministry, which swears by great “visions&" of judicial reforms. So, we have the registrars of the courts panhandling before the law secretaries whenever the expenditure crosses a specified threshold. The pleas of the registrars are often caught in the Centre-state controversy, the mandarins at both levels being experts in quoting rule-books.

It is not the higher judiciary alone that is a victim of the stingy syndrome. The subordinate courts and tribunals are in a much worse position. Tribunalisation is the current trend. However, every tribunal is suffering from a financial crunch, leading to shortage of staff and stationery. Currently, the seven-year-old Intellectual Property Appellate Board in Chennai is sparring with the commerce ministry for basic facilities for its chairman and staff. There is not even a small room in Mumbai for the board’s sitting. And it has to deal with appeals at the international level. Till recently, another national appellate body was operating from a car. The path to the district consumer forum in central Delhi is chronically flooded.

Lack of financial autonomy and the Cinderella treatment for the judiciary cripple the system in several other ways. For years, the All India Judges’ Association had been fighting a case in the Supreme Court for better wages and service conditions. The state governments have thought up every excuse available to deny or delay the benefits suggested by the court and its committees. As a consequence, the best talents are not attracted to the bench. A corporate lawyer can earn in the forenoon what the judges earn in a month. It would look like poetic justice that eminent lawyers have to argue before less endowed, disgruntled judges.

While politicians and the public criticise the judiciary for mounting arrears and slow disposal, the latter can reply that it is more sinned against than sinning. Neglecting education and health has set off migration and social tension in recent years. Neglect of the judiciary is no less perilous. “Undertrials&", labourers and landless persons cannot be kept out of sight, or out of mind for long.

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