top of page
  • ijrllp

Is the Indian Judicial System sluggly?

There is a famous phrase that, “Justice Delayed is Justice Denied”. This gains importance when in India at present, there are nearly 19,000 judges, including 18,000 in trial courts who are dealing with a pendency of almost 3 crore cases (approx.). The penal process in India- the world’s largest democracy is very much similar to that of the United States where the American prisons are termed as ‘over- crowded’ and that defendants in custody do need to wait for prolonged intervals before their actual cases are tried as trials in the courts of law. However, in reality, the condition is much worse. The accused are locked up behind the bars and then these prisoners have to wait nearly for decades and years for that good day when their turn will come up and their trial shall begin. A research study was done in India also shows that most of the prisons are overcrowded and furthermore no special care is being taken by the authorities in regard to the condition of the prisoners. In Indian prisons, the basic fundamental human rights are being contravened every now and then where the prisons have procured a squalid malaise and as a result, the inmates at prisons face multiple serious physical sufferings. The next strata of justice i.e. the courts have again too many open cases to deal with. If the courts were to speed up and clear these cases, what could be the strategy is an underlying question. In India, all the non-convicted defendants have to undergo within the Indian criminal justice process i.e. “under trial” which in itself is a staggering process for which partially the high ranking government officials, the lawyers and the judges seem to be responsible. Hence there is a need for massive reforms in the country’s penal process. In this study, the researcher is examining the current state of the Indian criminal justice system. Intercepted in 1979, the Indian Supreme Court for the first time referred to the American Constitution’s Sixth Amendment and held that the defendants had a fundamental right to a speedy trial. The researcher is examining the evolution of Indian jurisprudence on this matter. As the findings suggest, there exists a major gap in India between these encouraging judicial pronouncements and how the right plays out in reality. The crises we are referring to in the present context is occurring against a paradoxical Indian landscape that on the one hand is characterized as one of the most dominant powers on the world stage and has the potential for high economic growth. However, at the same time, the country suffers from disparate backlogs.

Counting it may lead us to the corruption muddles, severe poverty, daunting challenges of population explosion and the lacking strength of good educational institutions that are all assaulting the present Indian State. When these hardships are already present, it is strenuous to invade as to how the country can reconcile the brawl of the under-performing criminal justice system. For a country that targets democracy, there seems an enigma to how such a grail can be secured when the objective of speedy trials has gone astray from the desired procedure.

In 1950, the Indian Constitution came into force and in 1947 it achieved its independence from Great Britain. However, while this hefty task was performed, the drafters did not explicitly mention anything about an individual’s right to undergo or execute a trial in the most preferred manner.

Now it was a very common practice for the prisoners that were under any sort of trial to undergo several long periods in dark prisons and furthermore in most of the Indian Supreme Court pronouncements in the earlier 1952, the prisoners under trial were to deal with situations in the same landscape which in the present era calls for the actions of ‘Human Rights. In one of the cases of Lachmandas Kewalram Ahuja, the defendants were generally convicted under the system of criminal justice of the pre-1950’s. However, after the formation of the new Constitutional provisions, the guarantees that directed towards the fundamental structure made the court order that till the time duration the court inaugurates a newer version of the case in order to ensure the defendant's appearance at trial, they are needed to be retained as under trial prisoners and hence in custody.

Two decades after independence have occurred and the concern for the issue still remains dark. On numerous occasions, the courts collected less focus in directing the prosecution to justify the under trial prisoners continued detention. Also when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi imposed the ‘emergency rule’ while suspending the Constitution, the court acted upon the government’s specific demand not to provide the measures of speedy trial to the political prisoners that were jailed at that time.

In the landmark case decision of Hussain Khatoon v. Home Ministry, Justice P.N. Bhagwati opined in the case that the defendants had under article 21 of the Indian Constitution the right to a speedy trial. Concerned about the last time, Justice P.N. Bhagwati’s ruling up-roared great media attention and then a massive reconditioning was followed as to how the population of the prison was to be taken care of. The court’s ruling was based majorly on the United States procedure of Criminal System and also on an earlier case decision of Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India. The court in this case directed to the ruling that “substantive due process shall be recognized as a fundamental aspect of Article 21.” Subsequently the court in the later of its judgments in 1980 prohibited acts of handcuffing the under-trial prisoners unless there seemed to be a clear danger of escaping of the prisoner.

The same year, after the grievous efforts of Justice P.N. Bhagwati, four boys- all aged around twelve of age were finally acquitted of their charges in 1981 who was being dragged for about eight years of awaiting trial. Similarly, there were multifarious cases during the 1980s where the juveniles were remedied from the clutches of the under-trial period of waiting for the judgment day.

During this era of 1980, the courts generally focused on the region of the North Indian Jail and also widely dealt with the issue as to whether the time that is already spent in prison waiting for trial could be deducted from the final sentence period?

With this respect, the court turned its decision in 1985 and held that the ones who are facing the trial for lifelong imprisonment can be dealt with in the manner as provided in the earlier paragraph. In a landmark case of 1994, the Indian Courts turned their decision accepting that ‘the under-trial prisoners who spent maximum time waiting for their turn to come up and then are further stretched in prisons as a part of the sentence that is awarded to them by the courts of law strictly is violative of their fundamental right enshrined under article 21’.

There’s a 2010 survey datum submitted by the Indian Government which speaks that almost 70% of the under-trial prisoners locked up in jails are still to be incarcerated. This government’s most recent data of the issue concludes that from the earlier digits, the strength of under trial prisoners has just increased to fifty thousand people instead of declining in just two years. This fact in itself helps us contend that all the age-old Supreme Court’s verdicts dealing with the issues of under-trials have not been functionally implemented. Furthermore, over 1/3rd of the 2007 population of the under trial’s population lowers the literacy rate. Most of them are backing with a lesser education degree and these ones are not even qualified for the 10th-grade examination.

The 2007 data on which our analogy is based speaks of a very unique but different version as to the issue of the under-trials. It displays that most of the SC’s, ST’s and OBC’s (Backward Classes) are making up the under-trial population. Furthermore, 2/3rd of the under-trial population backs form one of the three classes as mentioned above. Hence the backward classes gain another platform where there is a great need for working for their upliftment. Further, if we choose state-wise categorical explanation, then West Bengal, Jammu & Kashmir, Goa, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh) bags fifty per cent of the list of 2007 under trial population and then again belonging to backward classes. One can easily sense that while these trail complications are being majorly faced by the lower strata of the society, the criminal justice system seems to be unfair in consideration to these lower caste people. The next impressing data we are going to forecast from those of 2007 list of surveys performed is that while most of the under trial prisoners are facing ‘murder charges’, it represents a silent history of the old college of legal presumptions where murder charges are still treated as consequential misdemeanors. The next towering under trial prisoners is that of facing theft charges. The Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act has also breached its limit by getting placed in the third position while accumulating 11, 108 under trial prisoners facing charges under the act. And very next to it we have charges of arms conflict whereby nearly six thousand under trail prisoners are being taken care of. Now consider the data were from the end of the year 2007, nearly 103,624 under trial prisoners have been waiting for their trial for 3 months or less. All these data lead us to the conclusion that the Indian Penal Justice system is probably the biggest black hole surviving and again it favours class division of the society and hence leads us towards a stereotype. One of the statements from 2010 was given by the then CJI of India, who denoted that “almost all the under-trial Judges need to be praised for their high disposal of cases”; the data of the same needs to be properly analyzed before applauding for it.

There is a multifarious question in relation to the present issue. First of them is that how many of the under-trail prisoners as mentioned in the above data are currently facing their hearing? Or how many of them have already been provided with the bail? Normally, as the procedures of Criminal Procedure of India provide for, an individual arrested must be made available for hearing before the magistrate within twenty-four hours of the time synapse (excluding the time made for the travel purpose) and at that time, the magistrate shall make on the decision as to grant bail to the accused or not. Apart from the trial decision, the police bear the responsibility to continue with the investigation process so as to timely determine whether the charge-sheet is filed or not. Then the next procedure stands to the point of determining whether to proceed for a trial or not. However, the above-mentioned data does not guarantee whether the under-trail prisoners who are being counted have been denied their bail applications or not. Ultimately, from the issues and factual data as represented above, a worsened condition of the Indian Penal System can be assured.

Supporting the same cause on which the present theme is based is not something new on its own. Once, Jagmohan Singh empirically detailed a rich scholarly book presenting his opinion on the under-trials situation of the country. His experiences as he shared in his book were centred to North Kashmir. His initial chapters of the book focused on the ancient adjudicators who were the lawgivers of the country. They not only focused on the framing of a standard legal opinion on every issue the man kind-faced and dealt with at that time but they were also very particular with the time limits under which their law had to take its course and fulfil the function of granting of the Justice.

Singh then goes on further arguing that in the ancient period of India and generally in the era of the Mughal’s (16th to 18th Cent.), the provisions of the speedy trial were great into action. At that time the kings were praised and ranked on the basis of their quick ability to dispose of the cases. Moreover, it was dealt with as an act of high esteem by various rulers. Yet at the end of the Mughal’s dynasty, the criminal justice delivery system became sluggish and was characterized by corruption.

This was the very similar system that the British inherited during their arrival and propounded most of their policies upon. The Britishers in their era established numerous Law Commissions to study and make the best of the law in order to tackle the problems. The Indian Jails Committee (1919- 1920) proposed first of its proposals to address the backlog and suggested that the convicted must be heard in the properly allocated time interval so as to prevent backlog. In the post-independence state of affairs, similar recommendations were made. It was in 1979 when a 4 member law commission suggested resolving the problem of decreasing the “prison population”. Again in 1983, the Mulla Committee devoted a time of nearly 3 years of empirical study to understand the problems of the undertrials. In 1993, the NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) issued several directives for ensuring that all under trial prisoners are treated in a humane manner.

Following are some of the major recommendations in relation to resolving the issue of undertrials and hence in a way to achieve the path of speedy justice, the following proposals have been enshrined:

a) The number of judges in the courts must be increased so as to decrease and minimize the burden of resolving the cases on every particular judge;

b) The courtroom process has to be enhanced technically so as to make the courtroom, a sound space to resolve the disputes with no difficulty;

c) The police must be encouraged to accelerate the investigation procedure;

d) The criminal cases must be continued in no time when in-between of the cases, the hearing judge is made transferred;

e) Promoting the government with unnecessary adjournments in the hands of the judiciary must be stopped;

f) The bail opportunities for less grave offences must be increased; and

g) The under trial prisoners must be separated from the ones who have already been convicted by the court and hence must be treated softly since they are still considered innocent in the eyes of the law.

For the world to be called an ideal place for the under-trials to stay, the following recommendations shall help in resolving the dilemma. Alongside the persistent issues, the lack of political will to resolve the issues existing in the society and the insufficient devotion to allocate resources and funds in the right place also needs to be resolved hand in hand.


  1. See Lachmandas Kewalram Ahuja v. Bombay, (1952) S.C.R. 710

  2. See Madhu Limaye v. Magistrate, (1971) 2 S.C.R. 711; Ranbir, Singh Sehgal v. Punjab, (1962) S.C.R. Supl. (1) 295; Leo Roy Frey v. Superintendent, (1958) S.C.R. 822; Kanta Prashad v. Delhi Admin., (1958) S.C.R. 1218

  3. See Upendra Baxi, The Indian Supreme Court and Politics, Eastern Book Co. (1980)

  4. See Upendra Baxi, The Supreme Court Under Trial: Undertrials and the Supreme Court, 1 S.C.C. (JOUR.) 35, 35–51 (1980); A.D.M. Jabalpur v. Shukla, A.I.R. 1976 S.C. 1207

  5. See Khatoon v. Home Ministry, (1979) 3 S.C.R. 169

  6. See Maneka Gandhi v. India, (1978) 2 S.C.R. 621

  7. See Shukla v. Delhi Admin., (1980) 3 S.C.R. 855

  8. See Pehadiya v. Bihar, A.I.R. 1981 S.C. 939; Bir v. Bihar, A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 1470

  9. See Batra v. Delhi Administration, (1979) 1 S.C.R. 392 (1978)

  10. See Munna v. Upper Pradesh, (1982) 3 S.C.R. 47; See also Supreme Court Legal Aid Comm. v. India, (1989) 2 S.C.R. 60

  11. See Yadav v. Bihar, (1982) 3 S.C.R. 533.

  12. See Kartar Singh v. Haryana, (1983) 1 S.C.R. 445; Sethi v. Bihar, A.I.R. 1982 S.C. 339

  13. See Bhagirath v. Delhi Admin., (1985) 3 S.C.R. 743

  14. See Supreme Court Legal Aid Comm. v. India, (1994) Supp. 4 S.C.R. 386

  15. See Sarkar v. Ranjan, A.I.R. 2005 S.C. 972

  16. See Marc Galanter, Competing Equalities: Law and Backward Classes in India (1984); Timothy Lubin, Donald R. Davis & Jayanth K. Krishnan: Hinduism and Law (2010)

  17. See Hari Om Maratha: Law of Speedy Trial- Justice Delayed is Justice Denied (2008)

  18. See litigation-statistics-debate-continue-all-india-seminar-on-judicial-reforms-looks-at-real-statistics- and-real-numbers654425

  19. See

  20. See Robert Lingat: The Classical Law of India, 67, 219–22

  21. See Surendra Kumar Pachauri: Prisoners and Human Prison System, 77–83 (1999)

  22. See F.A. Barker: The Modern Prison System of India, 1919–1920, Indian Jails Committee (1944)

  23. See Government of India, Ministry of Home Affairs, All India Commission on Jail Reforms (1980–83)

36 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page