The pendency of cases in courts, a huge legacy issue in India, has worsened further during the pandemic. With the judicial work being hampered due to shutdowns, the number of pending cases in lower courts rose from 3.2 crore in March 2020 to over 4 crore now. This is a warning signal about the urgency of reforms in the justice delivery system. Digitisation of workflow and procedural revamp are the possible solutions to the problem of pendency. However, the judiciary too is plagued by the digital divide; the higher courts have benefited from digital connectivity and going paperless while the lower courts have no access to new technologies. In a country where inordinate delays in the justice delivery system force undertrials to languish in jails for years and even those granted bail must wait till the court order reaches the jail authorities by post, the urgency of overhauling the judicial infrastructure need not be over-emphasised. While all other sectors have adopted modern communication technologies to improve efficiency and speed up delivery processes, the judiciary has been excruciatingly slow in embracing change. Social distancing norms, non-appearance of litigants in courts and lack of incentive for lawyers to expedite cases have all contributed to further delays during the pandemic. The shortage of judges is one of the key reasons behind the pendency of cases. Even before the pandemic, there were over 5,000 vacancies nationwide at the lower court level.
The government must shed its cumbersome procedures and fill the vacancies on a priority basis, particularly at the level of the subordinate courts which form the primary interface of the people with the justice system. The prolonged delays in disposal of cases are bound to have an adverse impact by weakening the grip of the rule of law on society. The undertrials, who constitute 70% of the total prisoners in Indian jails, are the most affected because of the archaic functioning of the justice delivery system. Modernisation and digitisation of courts should be accorded top priority. Many countries had embraced virtual technologies long ago for speedy and hassle-free delivery of justice. The video- and audio-enabled hearings are beneficial as it saves significant court costs in terms of building, staff, infrastructure, and transportation costs for all the parties. Reforms to reduce the burden on courts have been long overdue. The pandemic has only accentuated the urgency to use technology to find solutions that minimise physical contact and provide an affordable form of access to justice. Poor digital connectivity, particularly in rural areas, is a major hurdle in the way of speedy justice delivery. There is also a need to augment judicial infrastructure through National Judicial Infrastructure Corporation proposed by the Supreme Court Chief Justice NV Ramana.