An Indian high court has finally delivered judgement on the country’s oldest case, 72 years after it was filed in 1951.
The court in Kolkata has upheld its own judgement delivered in 1948 approving liquidation of the erstwhile Berhampore Bank, in response to a review petition dating back to 1951 that sought to challenge the verdict delivered three years earlier.
In his January 9th decree, Justice Ravi Krishan Kapur validated the winding up of the debt-ridden bank that had long since disappeared – in a case in which almost all the original litigants had died. His disposal order formally recorded the decades-old case as irreversibly concluded.
This was not the last such case pending before the Kolkata high court: two others pertaining to local civil matters, filed in 1952, are awaiting adjudication. The court recently appointed a special judicial officer and an advocate to speedily bring closure in both instances.
Although the three cases were exceptionally delayed, they are also symptomatic of India’s notoriously unhurried and overburdened judicial system, in which some 47 million cases are awaiting conclusion.
Tens of thousands of under-trial prisoners have languished for years in overcrowded prisons
About 14.5 million of these are criminal cases pertaining to murder, attempted murder, rape, kidnapping and other violent offences, of which more than 420,000 have been ongoing for more than a decade. Another five million are older than three years.
Consequently, tens of thousands of under-trial prisoners have languished for years in overcrowded prisons; lawyers said many such cases were eventually resolved by the accused’s demise. Some 372,000 under-trial prisoners are in jails across India at present, an increase of some 26 per cent since 2020, law officials said.
Even the country’s supreme court is not without blame, as it deals with a backlog of more than 60,000 cases, many of which have been pending for multiple years and are nowhere near resolution.
A cross-section of lawyers, legal analysts and former judges are increasingly voicing their disillusionment and dissatisfaction with the ability of the overburdened legal system to administer justice.
Justice Bilal Nikazi, former chief justice of the Orissa high court in eastern India and subsequently a senior lawyer, recently tweeted that he had “lost faith in an institution” to which he owed his existence.
Justice Subhash Reddy, who retired from the Indian supreme court last year, said in a farewell speech that all Indian courts laboured under a “huge backlog” of pending cases, which increased annually. He called for “comprehensive planning”, and warned that the prevailing legal system might simply not work for India’s present and future needs.
Legal academics and analysts concur, increasingly berating the courts for not doing enough to protect citizens’ rights and uphold the law. “The courts are clearly showing that justice delayed is justice denied,” said leading lawyer Dushyant Dave.
An enduring shortage of judges, too, is adversely impacting court efficiency.
Federal law minister Kiren Rijju recently told parliament that, as of last December, Indian courts were short of 5,580 judges, of which 333 vacancies were in 25 state high courts and six in the supreme court. He added that India had 21 judges per million of population, when successive legal reform commissions had recommended twice that number of jurists.