Article: India’s 72-year legal case serves as Exhibit A for judicial paralysis

The recent conclusion of India’s longest-running legal dispute — after 72 years and by a judge who was not even born when the case began — has sparked renewed calls for solutions to speed up the country’s snarled judicial system.

The case, which involved the liquidation of the former Berhampore Bank in Kolkata, started after the city’s High Court ordered the insolvent institution to wind up operations on Nov. 19, 1948. But a maelstrom of litigation to recover money from debtors left the matter unresolved for seven decades, until January.

For the public, the key takeaway has nothing to do with the case itself, but simply how long it took. The saga serves as evidence of how citizens of the world’s largest democracy often have to wait years for justice.

Law Minister Kiren Rijiju noted in parliament in December that the number of pending cases across various Indian courts will reach 50 million in 2023, the highest of any country. Granted, India is set to surpass China as the world’s most populous nation this year. But as of the last count in 2019, there were 105,560 cases still pending that have been in the courts for more than 30 years, according to the Law Ministry.

Pinky Anand, an attorney who has argued cases at the Supreme Court, said that although the Indian legal system is one of the world’s most creative and substantive, it is riddled with procedural problems that cripple delivery of justice. “An average litigation in India takes five to 10 years, which is phenomenally high,” she said.

Experts say this judicial paralysis owes to a combination of factors, including political delays in judicial appointments, inadequate infrastructure resulting in overburdened courts, and a bureaucratic culture of apathy toward aggrieved citizens. Making matters worse, India has just one lawyer for every 951 residents. In the U.S., the ratio is one for every 248 residents, according to World Population Review.

India also trails in the number of judges per capita. Responding to a question in the upper house of parliament, former Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad pointed out that as of 2020, the number of judges per million people was nearly 21 in India, compared with 107 in the U.S., 75 in Canada and 41 in Australia.

Experts say the Right to Information and Education Act of 2009 has also raised public awareness of rights, a positive shift that has nevertheless contributed to the spiraling number of court cases. Anand raised concerns over the Public Interest Litigation system as well, which allows anyone to file a case concerning matters that affect the public and was meant to “empower the underprivileged.” The process, she suggested, “is increasingly being hijacked by vested interests,” and high-profile cases fueled by sensationalist media coverage, pushing regular cases to the “back burner.”

And then there is the matter of resources. A Justice Ministry official said the judiciary is allotted only 0.1% to 0.4% of the country’s budget, dismal for a nation of India’s size and population.

Rakesh Purohit, a Delhi-based civil engineer whose father was involved in a property dispute with his family for over 25 years, says justice delayed is justice denied. “My dad fought the case for his rightful share of the familial property,” he said. “But by the time the verdict was delivered, he was no longer alive. He died a bitter and a poor man due to the protracted litigation.”