Speeding Up India's Courts
In the winter parliament session which begins this week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is aiming to pass several reforms meant to reduce the state's role in the economy. For them to work, however, Modi needs to fix one area the state cannot exit: India's horrifically dysfunctional legal system.
Stories about the slow pace and warped functioning of justice in India are legion. Last week, the problem assumed almost parody-like proportions when the country's Supreme Court indicted its top cop, accusing him of trying to derail the investigation into whether lucrative 2G spectrum licenses were doled out illegally in 2008. The apparent poisoning of such a high-profile case -- which has swept up several politicians, former ministers, bureaucrats and businessmen -- is yet further reminder of how broken the system has become.
India's market economy -- not to mention Modi's grand plans to revive it -- depends on the proper functioning of the rule of law. The country's abysmal standing on ease-of-business surveys shows how far from ideal the reality is: Out of 189 countries in the World Bank's ranking, India sits at 184 on dealing with construction permits and 186 on enforcing contracts.
While the problem can seem insurmountable, parliament and the executive could take several actions that would help immediately. Activists, for instance, have long argued that the Central Bureau of Investigation -- India's equivalent to the FBI -- should be made accountable to an independent ombudsman (the so-called Lokpal), at least for cases involving government officials. That may not be the best idea: An “independent” CBI could easily hold the government ransom by threatening to investigate any of its decisions. But the body should at least be depoliticized by appointing independent boards to sign off on the promotions and transfers of senior officers, all the way up to the CBI chief.
There's no reason the legendarily slow pace of Indian courts -- one land case has been going on since 1878 -- couldn't also be speeded up. The "2G scam" case has dragged on for four years with no verdict in sight. Fast-track courts have already been used for high-profile rape cases, and parliament could mandate standard timelines for other trials to reach the judgment stage. Timings could vary, but there's no reason cases shouldn't generally be resolved in 12 to 18 months, as in many parts of the world. Judges should be held accountable for delays. While judicial independence is critical, legislators do have a right to demand accountability from other arms of government.
It would also help to restrict the number of and grounds for appeals. India’s higher courts, particularly the Supreme Court, should only hear cases on appeal if a fundamental point of interpretation of law is at stake. They should not be rehearing evidence and retrying cases. The government is one of the worst offenders, often prolonging judicial processes through indiscriminate appeals. This must be curbed by executive order.
Without such changes, Modi's larger economic reform agenda could be at risk of paralysis. Given how litigious the country is, efforts to alter or scrap controversial labor or land-acquisition laws will almost certainly be challenged in court, where judicial activism is on the rise. It won't be easy to curb judges' inclination to frame policy. But at least a speedier process would avoid years of uncertainty about the fate of reforms -- delays that India can hardly afford.
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