Long arms of the law?

Updated: Feb 29, 2020, 07:05 IST | Lindsay Pereira | Mumbai

To visit a local court is to expose oneself to apathy, sadness, and despair. And yet, we seem to accept this as normal

It doesn't take a genius to acknowledge that our legal system is struggling to cope, and failing. Pic/Istock
It doesn't take a genius to acknowledge that our legal system is struggling to cope, and failing. Pic/Istock

Lindsay PereiraAsk a friend or family member what a court in India is like. Bollywood has long revelled in the fantasy that the law is a powerful force of justice, one that swoops down upon criminals irrespective of where or how long they try and hide. This rumour has prevailed forever, even though a visit to any local court can dispel it within minutes. I urge you to try it, even though I understand the risks involved. Depression is inevitable, as is anger, because you will experience both in large doses.

I know people who have been visiting courts for as long as they can remember, for reasons that are unclear to them as well as the people they interact with in those august institutions. A senior citizen I know has been struggling with a property dispute that began in the early 1990s and continues to this day with no resolution in sight. She trudges to South Bombay whenever a date is announced, then comes home exhausted with no idea of whether there has been any development or not. Her lawyers have changed, and some have retired, but she continues to give away portions of her savings without really knowing what the money is being used for.

Think about what this would mean in a retail setting if, for example, we were asked to pay for goods or services that weren't clearly defined. Think about the millions of Indians who are illiterate, and at the mercy of unscrupulous lawyers who can extract anything they can (and do with impunity), safe in the knowledge that their acts will never be brought to light. Your ability to read this column offers you a veneer of protection, because it means you will be able to read a legal document thrust at you, but doesn't protect you from the fact that you may be unable to cope with the consequences of that document.

One can always make the case that legal jargon needs to be eliminated, even though an outcry from lawyers is guaranteed. Some countries have put measures into place to try and ensure that people being charged for a crime understand the implications of what they are being charged for. In India, given that it sometimes appears as if portions of the law haven't been amended since the medieval age, it is almost impossible to expect this kind of change ever taking place.

It doesn't take a genius to acknowledge that our legal system is struggling to cope, and failing. A few years ago, a non-profit organisation conducted a study and found that when it came to conflict redressal, most Indians preferred anything but the formal judicial system. Many turned to family or friends, some to social or political leaders. A majority had little faith not just in lawyers, but also the police, a view that I imagine has only been strengthened over the past couple of months given the
way students across the country have been treated.

The number of cases pending before our district courts is staggering. Half a decade ago, there were reportedly 22 million cases, with 6 million lasting longer than five years and approximately 60,000 in the Supreme Court. Those figures ought to have prompted any government, anywhere on Earth, to initiate drastic measures. What our leaders did, naturally, was allocate one of the lowest proportions of their Budget in the world to the law ministry.

Court cases that last a lifetime are always great for people on the wrong side of the law, of course, because it enables them to live lives of impunity. It also explains why so many high-profile millionaires have laughed at our judicial system and escaped to foreign lands with billions that do not belong to them. The damage this does not just to our economy but to society as a whole is incalculable. Experts of all kinds have identified problems and proposed solutions, none of which have been taken seriously because delayed justice works very well for a great many of us.

We ask our politicians for all kinds of things, but those demands never extend to a better equipped judiciary, for reasons I can never fathom. Here's a statistic to think about when you next walk past your local court: Most developed nations have around 50 judges for every million of their citizens; India allegedly has less than 15. If you ever have the misfortune of being summoned for a case, I suggest you get on your knees and start praying.

When he isn't ranting about all things Mumbai, Lindsay Pereira can be almost sweet. He tweets @lindsaypereira Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

The views expressed in this column are the individual's and don't represent those of the paper

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