India’s Courts Resist Reform; Backlog at 31.4 Million Cases – Businessweek

Puneet Mittal, trim and sharply dressed, walks into the lobby of his law office in affluent South Delhi, a smartphone pressed to his ear. He turns to a recently hired associate, Bhavesh Verma. “We’re leaving at 9:30. And I don’t want to waste time.” But through no fault of his own, that’s just what Mittal’s going to do.

India’s Supreme Court

He is making his daily plunge into India’s court system, a maze of delays and procedures that puts even the most basic justice out of reach for millions. At the end of 2013, there were 31,367,915 open cases working their way through the system, from the lowest chambers to the Supreme Court. If the nation’s judges attacked their backlog nonstop—with no breaks for eating or sleeping—and closed 100 cases every hour, it would take more than 35 years to catch up, according to Bloomberg Businessweek calculations. India had only 15.5 judges for every million people in 2013, then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said at the time. The U.S. has more than 100 judges for every million.

Beneath a top layer of established attorneys such as Mittal, the courts are plagued by “goondas in black,” a phrase that pairs the Hindi word for “goons” with a sly reference to the black suit jackets lawyers wear in court. To keep collecting fees, these lawyers demand one hearing after another, with no intention of seeking a resolution for their clients, says Alok Prasanna Kumar, senior resident fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, which advocates for a more efficient system. Or, he says, they resort to extortion to make up for a lack of income. A “significant number” of the lawyers, especially outside the capital, have practices that don’t sustain them. That leads them to clog the system with pointless litigation: “The bar in India is in a very bad shape,” Kumar says.

In 2013 there were 31,367,915 open cases in India, from the lowest courts to the Supreme Court

Even the best attorneys can have low-stakes lawsuits last a decade or more. New Delhi lawyer Murari Tiwari describes one 20-year property dispute: His original client has died, as has one of his sons. While the case crawls through the courts, Tiwari says, the two families in litigation, one including an auto-rickshaw driver and the other a retired policeman, live on opposite sides of the same building in an icy détente.

via India’s Courts Resist Reform; Backlog at 31.4 Million Cases – Businessweek.

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