The present judicial system in India is set in a hierarchical pattern. At the top is the Supreme Court, then come the High Courts, one in each State. Below the High Court, there is a network of subordinate civil and criminal courts in each State. The administration of justice, constitution and organisation of all courts, except the Supreme Court and the High Courts, has now been transferred from the State List to the Concurrent List. Civil and Criminal Procedures fall in the Concurrent List. The constitution and organisation of the Supreme Court and the High Courts is provided in the Constitution.
The bulk of the judicial work is done by the subordinate judicature, i.e. the courts below the High Courts. These courts come in close contact with the people, and follow the law of the State concerned. At the lowest level are the munsiffs’ courts having a jurisdiction to decide cases upto a few thousands rupees. Then come the courts of subordinate judges (also called civil judges in some States). They can try cases of a higher denomination than the munsiffs. At the top in a district is the court of the district judge, which has unlimited original jurisdiction. Its main function however is to hear appeals from the lower courts in the district (the limit being Rs. 10,000). There also function Small Cause Courts in each State. These are the courts of minor jurisdiction and provide cheap and quick justice in cases of small monetary value. There also exist nyaya panchayats in some of the States.
The criminal courts lie in three rungs of an ascending ladder. At the lowest rung are the village panchayats and courts of magistrates (judicial and executive magistrates); next above them come the Sessions Courts, and then, there are the High Courts subject to the ultimate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.
A sound judicial system must have two basic elements: a well-planned, well-regulated system of courts following a simple and orderly procedure; and a definite, easily ascertainable and uniform body of law.
The Indian judicial system, on the whole, is “tolerably adequate”. A hierarchical network of courts spreads in the country to dispense justice. The judicial procedure follows the best of the English legal traditions. Liberal provisions exist for taking appeals from the lower to the higher courts. The Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, enforces a high standard of justice and promotes a common approach to law throughout the country. The independence of the judiciary is fairly well ensured by the Constitution. Adequate precautions have been taken to enable the courts to discharge their functions fearlessly and impartially. Law is mostly codified and is uniform throughout the country.
The Indian judicial system is not, however, perfect. It suffers from some very serious defects. The Law Commission has characterised the present judicial system as “stratified, highly expensive, inaccessible, unduly formal, lenghty and dilatory”. The system is for the rich and poor man can ill-afford the luxury of modern litigation. Some of the defects are as follows-
(i) Law’s delay It may take 5 or 6 years before a small suit is finally disposed of through all stages. Justice delayed is justice denied. The delay shakes public confidence in the administration of law and justice. Huge arrears of cases are pending in the law courts. The chances of miscarriage of justice as a result of delay is much more in criminal cases than in civil cases.
(ii) Court fees-The present-day litigation is very costly. A plaintiff has to pay exorbitant court fees, and the lawyer’s fees. The law’s delay increases the cost of litigation much further. Under such circumstances, the poor have often to go without getting justice.
(iii) Under-trial prisoners – Under-trials have to remain in prison for long before even their trial starts. This situation arises because of the inadequacy of criminal courts in the States. There are instances where under-trial prisoners have remained in jail for over 8 years for offences for which even if they were convicted, they could not be awarded more than 2 years’ imprisonment.
(iv) Incompetent and corrupt judges – Indian courts do not always use their powers properly to give justice and protect public interest. The courts are often influenced by persons with money
and power. Judicial discretion, at times, is arbitrary, vague and fanciful.
(v), Judicial apathy – The judges have themselves lost faith in the system and confidence in their own ability to do justice. They have come to accept corruption, indifference, lethargy and incompetence as normal attributes of their office.
Measures- To remove delays in the administration of justice, the Law Commission has suggested an increase in the strength of judicial personnel, increase in the jurisdiction of lower courts, raising standards of selection of judges and good pay scales to attract competent law graduates to the judicial cadre.
The Law Commission is of the view that a modern welfare State can not with any justification sell the dispensation of justice at a price. The cost of administration of justice should like the cost of other services fall on the tax paying public as a whole and it is unfair that a section of the public, the civil litigants, alone should be made to pay for the upkeep of the judicial system. A small regulatory fee may be justified but the present scales of court fees are wholly indefensible. The States should allocate more funds for the administration of justice.
The Supreme Court in its recent decisions has emphasised that the ‘right to life’ under Article 21 of Constitution includes the ‘right to speedy trial’. Further, the poor should be provided the free legal services or legal aid. The new dispute-resolving machinery (e.g. Lok Adalats, Tribunals), besides the traditional nyaya panchayats, is very useful to check delays and the costs of litigation. These mechanisms resolve disputes outside the traditional judicial system and provide a speedy and inexpensive justice.
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