An important article by Jay Krishnan and his co-authors about the challenges litigants face in lower courts in India will appear in the next issue of the Harvard Human Rights Journal. Funded by the Ford Foundation, the research for the study was conducted over a 3 year period by dozens of researchers who interviewed hundreds of people in three states in India, including judges, lawyers, and litigants. This is a welcome study, because (among other things) much of the prior academic work has focused on higher courts in India. Most people are aware that cases can take a long time to be resolved in India courts (sometimes decades). What most people do not know, however, is that the Supreme Court and most of the High Courts in India dispense justice relatively quickly. In an empirical study of two years of Indian Supreme Court decisions, Ted Eisenberg and I have found that it takes the Indian Supreme Court only 2-4 years issue a decision on criminal cases.
It is typically the lower courts that are the ones that are responsible for the inordinate delays. Jay Krishnan’s study confirms this impression and also adds a lot more detail to the picture of Indian lower courts. Delays are often caused by lawyers who seek continuances and the system of judge-appointment that requires judges to be transferred every 3-4 years. Other problems include lack of adequate infrastructure for judges, lack of basic facilities such as toilets and safe drinking water for litigants, confusion among lawyers about which courts have jurisdiction over various matters, judges with large case loads, and too many possibilities for interlocutory appeals. Despite these problems, researchers found that people still had hope and optimism in the system.
The article also takes great effort to present the unique challenges faced by women litigants, lawyers, and judges. The article notes that: “women-litigants and women-lawyers face . . . the indignities of having to work in environments where basic human infrastructural needs are unmet. Lack of available and clean washrooms, the absence of security to protect them from routine harassment and intimidation, the unavailability of safe transportation to bring them to-and-from the courts to their residences, not enough seating in (male-dominated) waiting areas, and the gender-based verbal prejudice they receive are just a handful of reprehensible conditions that require remedies.”
Women lawyers also face challenges. According to the article, women lawyers “can be taunted and bullied by their male colleagues and literally shoved aside physically while walking in what is the daily chaotic court-atmosphere in which they work.” A particularly egregious recent example is that of a young female lawyer who was suspended by a state bar association for stating in a post on Facebook that male lawyers call women “sugar candy” and “tell them you are so beautiful.” This comes on the heels of a former Supreme Court Justice who was accused by sexually harrassing an intern. In part because of the national attention given to cases of sexual violence and the ensuing law reform, there is a growing recognition among women in India that this kind of behavior should not be tolerated and exposed.