Four years ago, while researching a story on dowry deaths – one of those phrases which, along with caste, is peculiar to India – I met Gurbaksh Kaur Basra, who runs a refuge in New Delhi for women who have fled violent husbands and in-laws demanding more dowry.
Frail and white-haired, the 75-year-old was the epitome of stoicism until, that is, she began recounting how her own daughter had been set alight by her husband 24 years earlier.
“The case is still in the courts. With my arthritis, it’s hard for me to attend the hearings but I always go. My worst fear is that I will die before getting justice for my daughter,” said Ms. Basra.
The family of the Delhi gang rape victim are ‘lucky’ in that they will avoid Ms. Basra’s fate. Given the publicity the case attracted – their 23-year-old daughter was savagely raped in a moving bus on Dec. 16 in the Indian capital and later died of her injuries – it is being heard in a special ‘fast-track court’ which began its proceedings on Tuesday.
Had the fast-track court not been set up, this family would have endured the torment of waiting between 10 and 30 years for a verdict. That’s what millions of Indians seeking justice have to face because the judicial system is clogged up with an estimated 25 million cases crawling their way through the courts.
Children grow up while their parents wait to hear which one of them will get custody, siblings fighting over inheritances die before getting a ruling, men and women can’t remarry for years because their divorce has not come through, and parents like Ms. Basra go to their graves without getting justice for their murdered children.
In 2009, the High Court in New Delhi said it was so behind in its work that it could take up to 466 years to clear the backlog. A parliamentary report of 2002 looking into the judicial delays cited cases that went back to the 1950s.
Well known lawyer Prashant Bushan said recently: “It’s a completely collapsed system. This country only lives under the illusion that there is a judicial system.”
The Indian legal system needs a complete overhaul. With its staggering delays, it cannot deliver justice. One reason for the delays is a lack of judges. India, with 1.2 billion people, has 15 judges for every million people, compared with roughly 50 judges per million in the United States. Moreover, at any given time, between 25-30 per cent of these posts lie vacant.
Another reason are the inordinate delays allowed by India’s legal procedures. Files can take an eternity to move from one person to another and litigants are permitted to ask for endless adjournments and appeals, almost ad infinitum, slowing down every step of the process. Lawyers love it because it bumps up their costs.
Legal experts say the criminal justice system should be altered so that specific time limits are set for each stage of a trial. They also argue for more courts to be set up and more money to be spent on the judicial system.
The worst affected are the poor, who cannot afford long trials and inflated legal costs, which is why most poor Indians don’t even bother to register a crime unless it is very serious.
An alarming corollary of these delays is that the law fails to deter criminals. Knowing they you can be out on bail and then lead a normal life while the case meanders for decades is almost an incitement to commit a crime.
The terrible death of the rape victim galvanised the nation into reflecting on the position of Indian women. If the trial of the alleged rapists can trigger a wholesale reform of the legal system – by showing Indians that the delivery of justice can be measured in months and not decades – then the girl’s death will leave a lasting legacy that will benefit millions of Indians.
But so far, no one in the political establishment has shown any will to act on legal reform.
Amrit Dhillon is a journalist based in New Delhi