By Anit Mukherjee —
Status: Not started — The Modi government launched the Integrated Case Management Information System in its first term to digitize filings but has so far implemented the same only in the Supreme Court.
Medium Difficulty: No Legislation, Practical Challenges — This reform does not require legislation. The judiciary itself is committed to a paperless court system. However, the reliance on paper is so entrenched, the shift to digital is going to be a herculean task.
This is the twenty-third installment in a new series of articles on the India Reforms Scorecard: 2019-2024 by the staff and experts at the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies. The series seeks to provide analysis on why reforms marked as “Incomplete” or “In Progress” have not been completed, and the impact such reforms can have on specific sectors or the economy at large.
India has a multi-tiered decentralized court system, partly a legacy of its colonial past. It is one of the three pillars of the Constitution which bestows the judiciary with wide powers of oversight on the legislative and executive branches of the government in addition to the day-to-day administration of justice. Over time, India’s court system has become significantly overburdened resulting in a backlog of cases that has become a difficult challenge as it tries to improve governance and the rule of law.
In 2019, India ranked 163 out of 186 nations in the “Enforcing Contracts” in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report. India also ranked 68 out of 126 countries in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index. In terms of timeliness, it is near the bottom of all countries surveyed. One study estimates the economic cost of pendency to be as high as 1.5 percent of India’s gross domestic product (GDP). Improving administration of justice, therefore, should be high on the government’s reform agenda.
Much of the delay can be attributed to the cumbersome paperwork that forms the basis of the court system. Management of paper-based case files is a severe burden on litigants, lawyers, and administrators, as well as the judges. Moreover, case files need to be physically moved from one tier to another as appeals are lodged and hearings held. As a recent report commissioned by the Delhi High Court suggests, a paperless court system can improve the administration of justice and enable speedy resolution of cases bringing relief to more than 40 million litigants whose cases are pending in the Indian court system, some for over a decade.
The government has belatedly recognized the scale of the problem and has taken steps to digitize the court system. However, this has largely remained a top-down approach. The Supreme Court introduced a paperless courtroom in mid-2017 and announced plans for integrated case management in all high courts and subordinate courts. In July 2019, the Delhi High Court’s Chief Justice presided over the first paperless court with other High Courts expected to follow suit. While there were initial glitches when the first paperless court was introduced, the experience of introduction of technology has been broadly positive from the judges who do not have to deal with bulky files as they did previously.
While these are steps in the right direction, much more needs to be done to address case pendency and speed up the administration of justice. According to the India Justice Report released in November 2019, there are 28 million pending cases in district and sub-district level subordinate courts, one in four of them for more than five years. Overall, nearly 2.3 million cases are pending for more than 10 years, and the situation is particularly worrisome in large states such as Bihar, West Bengal, and Uttar Pradesh where nearly one-quarter of cases date back a decade or more. Moreover, as per the National Judicial Data Grid, nearly five million cases are those filed by senior citizens and women — two demographic categories who are particularly affected by the delay in resolving legal disputes.
Reforming India’s judicial system and reducing case pendency is a long-term agenda. Vacancies are pervasive at all levels. Filling them would require significant increases in public expenditure, currently 0.08 percent of GDP. This will not be easy or immediate. In the meantime, India can move towards a large-scale adoption of technology by expanding the use of paperless courts which has the potential to speed up the resolution of cases, bringing relief to millions of people for whom justice delayed is more often than not justice denied.
Dr. Anit Mukherjee is an Adjunct Fellow (non-resident) with the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies at CSIS and a policy fellow with the Center for Global Development. Follow him on twitter @Anitnath.