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PM on quick justice and judicial activism

April 09, 2007 14:34 IST

Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, inaugurated the conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts on 'Administration of Justice on Fast Track', in Dlehi on April 8. Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan, Union Minister for Law and Justice H R Bhardwaj, Minister of State for Law and Justice Venkatapathy, judges of the Supreme Court, chief justices of the High Courts and many chief ministers were among the dignitaries that participated in the function.

Following is the text of the prime minister's address on the occasion.

"I feel privileged to be once again at this very important conference of chief ministers and chief justices.  These are important and useful opportunities for representatives of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary to interact, both formally and informally. Apart from discussing various issues on the agenda, I hope each one of you will use this opportunity to gain a better understanding and appreciation of the other's concerns and preoccupations. In this way this conference would be an important asset in mutual comprehension. Unless the three wings of the State understand each other better, they will not be able to function effectively in the interests of our nation and our people at large. The three wings have well defined roles and functions under our Constitution. However, all the wings have a common goal -- which is the fulfillment of the hopes of the founding fathers of our Republic and as spelt out so clearly in our magnificent Constitution. Therefore, conferences such as these give us an opportunity to discuss contemporary issues which have a bearing on the organs of the State, particularly those issues where the interface between the organs is large.

In last year's conference I had an opportunity to share some of my views on judicial reforms and e-governance. Our government accords high priority to judicial reforms. The National Common Minimum Programme envisages judicial and legal reforms as one of the thrust areas in promoting good governance. In that direction, my government has already undertaken certain initiatives.  It has amended the Procedural Laws with a view to improving the Criminal Justice System. 'Plea Bargaining' has been introduced in the Criminal Procedure Code. I must place on record here my very sincere appreciation of the fulsome support and cooperation our government has received from the leadership of our judiciary in this regard. Both former chief justices of the Supreme Court and the present chief justice have shown great commitment to judicial reform and I thank them for this.

Our government places special emphasis on professionalism in investigation and prosecution as well as providing protection to our citizens, particularly women, against arbitrary harassment from the police.  There is a bill now before Parliament that seeks to amend the Criminal Procedure Code to deal with the problem of witnesses turning hostile. It also seeks to provide legal rights and compensation to victims. It will also facilitate the use of modern techniques in investigation. The Bill will make summary trial mandatory in cases with imprisonment up to three years.  

There are a few issues, which have been flagged for this conference.  The most important issue is that of "pendency" and the growing backlog of cases in courts.

In spite of efforts having been made and being made, and support provided by the government, it is a matter of concern that there are huge arrears of more than 2.5 crore cases in courts. Over 2/3rd  of these are criminal cases. While there has been some progress in reducing pendency in superior courts, the position in subordinate courts has hardly shown any improvement. I have been told that the number of fresh cases is generally more than the number disposed in a given period of time.  Unless the rate of disposal improves, the backlog would keep mounting. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve the throughput of cases. We are a country - we take pride in being governed by the rule of law. If the rule of law has to become a living reality these delays and these arrears have to be effectively curbed. 

An important factor causing pendency is the number of vacancies that presently remain unfilled in the subordinate judiciary.  This is one area where the states and the hcgh Courts have to come forward and execute and implement a time bound exercise for filling up vacancies.  I am sure once the vacancies are filled up there would definitely be reduction in the arrears.

I would also like learned judges to consider another suggestion for increasing the disposal of cases. Courts may consider having more than one shift. You are also aware of the government's interest in speeding up the process of computerisation and e-enabling our courts.  A massive exercise has been taken up to computerise all the district and subordinate courts of the country, linking them with the highest court. The first phase of this exercise is to be implemented very soon.  I sincerely hope computerisation will help our courts reduce pendency.

Fast Track Courts are another answer to dealing with the problem of arrears. Though the initial scheme of Fast Track Courts was to end in the year 2005, our government has extended it to the year 2010, providing central support to the states. The government has provided Rs 509 crore for this purpose. I have been, however, informed that receipt of utilisation reports from the states in this regard is not very satisfactory and hence, there are delays in disbursal.

I sincerely hope state governments will take note of this and speed up procedures to ensure smooth flow of central assistance for this very important purpose.

Fast Track Courts have reportedly established a good track record. Your conference theme is 'Administration of Justice on a Fast Track'. I hope your deliberations will help further strengthen this track in our justice delivery system. I look forward to learning about your deliberations. I am sure that under the leadership of the K G Balakrishnan, we will see the issues raised at this conference being addressed by our highest judiciary. I know that Justice Balakrishnan is committed to the reform and modernisation of our judiciary. During his term of office, I sincerely hope and trust, many new initiatives will undoubtedly be taken to provide relief to the litigants and the faith of the people in judiciary will be reinforced and strengthened.

I am happy to say that our government has been able to extend support to the judiciary by investing more in the development of judicial infrastructure. As my colleague Bhardwaj mentioned, a Ten Year Perspective Plan has also been drawn up for construction of court buildings and residential accommodation for judges. This plan is based on inputs provided by state governments.  We are also discussing this matter with the Planning Commission for deciding the outlays for this purpose during the Eleventh Plan. 

Another important issue that requires your attention is the setting up of Family Courts.  I am informed that in a number of states, Family Courts have not yet been set up in accordance with the provisions of the Family Courts Act 1984. I sincerely hope these family courts will be set up at the earliest.

I do sincerely believe that the judiciary, the executive and the legislature have an obligation both to our Constitution and to our people, to work in harmony. Each one of these organs of the State have an important and vital role to play in improving the welfare and well-being of our people. Each one of the organs have their Constitutionally assigned roles and responsibilities, and these must be discharged in all honesty.  Each organ must respect the roles and functions of the other. Powers accorded to each organ must be exercised cautiously.

In the context of judicial reform, the primary obligation is to enforce the rule of law, uphold the Constitution and enforce the discharge of obligations by any authority of the State. This confers enormous powers on our judiciary, rightly so. But at the same time it also involves enormous responsibility -- in the exercise of these powers. Courts have played a salutary and corrective role in innumerable instances.

They are highly respected by our people for that. At the same time, the dividing line between judicial activism and judicial over-reach is a thin one. As an example, compelling action by authorities of the state through the power of mandamus is an inherent power vested in the judiciary. However, substituting mandamus with a takeover of the functions of another organ may, at times, become a case of over-reach.

These are all delicate issues which need to be addressed cautiously. All organs, including the judiciary, must ensure that the dividing lines between them are not breached. This makes for a harmonious functioning.

So is the case with Public Interest Litigation. PILs have great utility in initiating corrective action. At the same time, PILs cannot become vehicles for settling political or other scores. We need standards and benchmarks for screening PILs so that only genuine PILs with a justiciable cause of action based on judicially manageable standards are taken up. This will also ensure consistency in judicial pronouncements. The Supreme Court could take the lead in framing rules in this regard.

Conferences like these can play a very important role in helping us understand each other better and work together in the discharge of our respective duties. I hope it is in this spirit that these proceedings will be conducted. I wish you all success in your endeavour."