Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Gram Nyayalayas: a cause for optimism?

Nicholas Robinson

Union Law Minister M V Moily recently announced that 200 gram nyayalayas will be operational by October 2nd 2009. This initiative is taken under the 2008 Gram Nyayalayas Act. The Law Ministry envisions setting up some 5000 gram nyayalayas across India over the next three years, with the hope to fundamentally reshape the lower judiciary in India. The 2008 bill states that eventually every intermediate (i.e. block) panchayat will have a gram nyayalaya. The gram nyayalayas will then form the new lowest layer to the Indian judicial system and the first point of contact for many, if not most Indians. If fully implemented, it is here that the majority of legal disputes in India will be resolved. Who will be these Nyayadhikaris, will there be enough of them to significantly bring down the estimated 30,000,000 cases currently pending in the judicial system, and will they be accountable?

In the 2008 bill it states that these Nyayadhikaris’ qualifications are that of a first class judicial officer, or essentially just a lawyer. He or she will be appointed by the state government in consultation with the High Court in the state. In essence, the imagined recruitment pool is young lawyers, not particularly well trained, aspiring to be magistrates and then later district court judges. Although they may not be seasoned lawyers when they start, many of the problems they encounter won’t be that complicated and if paid well enough the job could start attracting some talented young lawyers. It will be critical to watch over the coming months and years the quality of lawyers being appointed and what sort of prestige the position gains, which will influence the ability to attract future talent. However, given the low quality level of some (but certainly not all) judicial magistrates, session court judges, etc. there is definitely reason to worry that these appointees may not have the skills necessary to do the job and be susceptible to corruption.

Tempering these concerns though, Nyayadhikaris can only impose a sentence of up to two years and the amount they can fine or grant in a civil case is capped as well. The District Court judge is given the responsibility to appoint a judicial officer to inspect Gram Nyayalayas in their district at least every six months. Both these measures are designed to limit the potential harm corrupt or incompetent Nyayadhikaris could do.

A party can appeal the Nyayadhikaris verdict to a sessions court judge for criminal matters which must be decided by that judge within 30 days. For Civil matters it goes to the District Court which must decide it within 6 months. Vitally, the Bill states there is no appeal past this stage (except in cases that involve a claim of a constitutional violation). Effectively, for almost all matters a Gram Nyayalaya can hear there is only one additional appeal you can make afterwards. This appeal is to the judicial officers who in the current system are generally the first to hear a case. Another layer to the judicial system has been added to screen off matters of perceived smaller importance and limit the ability of affected persons to appeal and clog the system at the High Courts and Supreme Court.

This system could work effectively if both the Gram Nyayalayas and the subordinate judges these cases will be appealed to were competent and clean from corruption. Yet, the track record for the subordinate judiciary in India is not perceived to be strong on either of these fronts. The worry is that persons will have fines or criminal sentences improperly imposed against them and find that their avenues for appeal have been shut past these often low level subordinate judicial officers. Even if the sessions court or district court judge is very talented, the time limits imposed for resolving an appeal may mean they can’t give the attention to a case it deserves and so leave many cases of injustice done by Gram Nyayalayas untouched. Two years’ imprisonment may not be the same as the death penalty or life imprisonment, but it’s still a long time to be wrongly put in jail. Similarly, even moderate fines can destroy many families’ savings in India.

Finally, even if all 5,000 Nyayadhikaris are appointed over three years, this still may not be enough to bring India’s judicial backlog under control. To give one a sense of the scale of this endeavor there are currently about 650 working High Court judges and almost 14,000 district judges, assistant district judges, magistrates and other judicial officers in the rest of the subordinate judiciary. Almost all observers agree that there simply aren’t enough judges in India for the cases currently in the system. Further, many observers think Indians don’t litigate enough – i.e. there are many cases of wrongs that should be litigated that aren’t brought to the courts because of the clogged courts. 5,000 Nyayadhikaris is substantial, but probably not enough to take on all the current cases or the cases that aren’t being brought yet should be.

Despite these concerns, we should watch the development of Gram Nyayalayas not only with some degree of skepticism, but also optimism. If the Act is well-implemented and taken in step with broader efforts to strengthen the lower judiciary, Nyayadhikaris could prove vital in bringing the rule of law to millions of Indians.

Nick Robinson is a Visiting Fellow at Centre for Policy Research, and teaches at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore

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