The Battle Of The Backlog
Doshi: Every month judges in Maharashtra dispose of more than 2 lakh cases. In the last 20 months, the Maharashtra judiciary has cleared almost 4 lakh criminal cases for dishonour of cheques. This week, we bring you a very special and very exclusive insight into how the Bombay High Court Chief Justice Mohit Shah is fighting the battle of the backlog. And he’s winning it seems!
Mohit Shah started his practice in the Gujarat High Court in 1976. In 1995 he was elevated to judge. In 2009 he was appointed Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court and six months later, in June 2010, he moved to the Bombay High court as Chief Justice. In this interaction, Chief Justice Shah stresses on the role and importance of a well functioning judiciary in the economic performance of a country.
Justice Shah: Our working strength is one-sixth or maybe even one-eighth of the strength that you have in many of the developed countries like USA, where you have 100 judges per million. We have, in India, about 13 to 14 judges – fortunately in Maharashtra we are comparatively better placed. We have 16.5 judges for population of one million.
As the Bombay High Court celebrates it 150th year, Chief Justice Shah applauds the work done by Maharashtra’s judiciary to reduce pendency or the case backlog.
Justice Shah: I came here as was mentioned on 26 June and I found on June 30, 2010 there were 4.1 million cases. In the last 20 months another 3.4 million cases came to be added – fortunately we have been able to dispose off 4.4 million cases in the last 20 months – that means at every month judges in Maharashtra dispose off more than 200,000 cases. In last 20 months we have reduced the pendency by one million.
Chief Justice Shah also burst the myth that cases often pend for 10 or 20 years. When he took over the backlog of what he calls 'old cases' or cases pending for more than 5 years, was 1.3 million. In the last 20 months, 790,000 cases have been disposed off but at the same time another 192,000 cases turned old taking the tally to 718,000.
Justice Shah: You might say that it is a huge number; it is but if in the last 20 months, we could try and decide 790,000 cases, this 718,000 cases, we will be able to decide in the next 20 months, will be able to dispose off them in the next 20 months and during those 20 months there will be about another 200,000 cases so we will be able to deal with them in another six months. So, maybe by December 2014 we won’t have any case which will be pending in any court in Maharashtra for more than 5 years.
Chief Justice Shah points out that 47% of the pending cases are barely two years old – 30% are between 2 to 5 years old ;15% are between 5 to 10 years old and only 8% of pending cases are more than 10 years old- that adds up to 23% cases that are more than 5 years old.
Justice Shah: So, it is this 23% cases which bring us the bad name. As I said, we will be able to deal with these more than 5 year old cases within two years. Now you will say that after all this is a conference of business lawyers so you won’t like to know more about what happens to the business cases in Maharashtra. On 1 July, 2010, we had 327,000 cases of criminal cases for dishonour of cheques. We had 30 judges exclusively trying cases for dishonour of cheques. One court of the magistrate, court number 30 in Kurla had 45,000 cases. I immediately dashed off a letter to the Chief Minister that you please give me at least ten magistrates to deal with only these cases. The result is for all of you to see- from out of 327,000 cases plus another 200,000 cases we could dispose off 387,000 cases in the last 20 months. So, the pendency has now come down to 140,000 cases only. That court of the metropolitan magistrate in Kurla which had 45,000 cases now has only 4600 cases and we are sure that with passage of time in few months we will be able to control even that pendency.
Chief Justice Shah also touches upon the importance of arbitration. He points to the legacy delays in appointing arbitrators. When he took over, 520 applications for the appointment of arbitrators were pending. That number is now down to 62.
Justice Shah: So as soon as an application is made for an appointment of an arbitrator, within three to four months, we decide that application and the arbitrator is appointed. This chart gives you the pendency of cases on the original side of the High Court such as arbitration petitions, company scheme petitions because you are all concerned with merger and amalgamation- so hardly any cases go beyond two years. In fact all the company scheme petitions are decided in less than two years. You will only find that there is one difficulty about suits which are pending on the original side of the High Court, that number is large and we have found out a solution. Within a few months, we will be able to address this problem. The solution is this that all other High Courts have their original side jurisdictions starting from Rs 1 million-2 million-2.5 million. Our court had original side jurisdiction starting from only Rs 50,000. So now it is proposed that we will have our pecuniary jurisdiction above Rs 10 million. Out of 41,000 cases suit on the original side – 36,000 cases are less than 10 million. So those 36,000 cases will go to the city civil court where there are more judges and less cases. So once our judges will be free to decide this more contested cases, they will also be able to attend to the arbitration petitions and hopefully we should be able to hear such petitions within a year or so.
The Bombay High Court has also been encouraging mediation. 4,400 cases have been settled in the last one year. Chief Justice Mohit Shah quotes Frank Sander to articulate his vision for India’s courts.
Justice Shah: All such pendency cannot be dealt with unless our lawyer friends appreciate that our courts should not be treated as only trial courtrooms. Professor Frank Sander said, as far as back in 1976, that the 'civil courts is a collection of dispute resolution procedures tailored to fit the variety of disputes that parties bring to the justice system.'
Bombay High Court’s Chief Justice, Mohit Shah on the battle of the backlog. More power to him and the entire judiciary working hard to decrease pendency.