The judiciary should have annual performance reports, too

In a rare exhibition of transparency, at least by the standards of the Indian judiciary, the Orissa High Court has published an annual report taking stock of its performance in a difficult year that was punctuated by the resurgence of the pandemic. By subjecting itself to the scrutiny of the common citizen, the court has shown exceptional humility.

The report provides a district-wise breakup of cases and availability of judges. It contains a section explaining the reasons for delays and backlog at the level of the district judiciary. The tendency of higher courts to “stay” proceedings, the uneven distribution of cases amongst judges in trial courts and the non-availability of witnesses due to transfers are among the major reasons cited by it for delays. This is a notable public introspection exercise by the judiciary which, at most times, is content with blaming delays on insufficient funds and shortage of judges.

The report also sheds light on the administrative functioning of the court. Such disclosures are welcome because much of the judicial administration at the level of the state judiciary, lies in the hands of high court judges who execute these functions through small committees of judges. In addition to listing the judges on each administrative committee, the report acknowledges the work done by them. For instance, the committee that deals with the appeals by the employees of the district judiciary against orders passed by disciplinary authorities had 40 appeals, out of which it disposed of only 13 appeals. This is useful information if one wishes to assess the administrative workload of judges and the efficiency with which they discharge their tasks. Most HCs do not share this information with ordinary citizens even if requests are made for the same under the Right to Information Act. The Bombay High Court, for instance, recently ruled that its “file notings” on administrative matters are not required to be disclosed under the RTI Act.

Annual reports have traditionally been an important way of ensuring accountability of public bodies to Parliament and citizens. Each Union ministry is required to supply copies of these reports to the Lok Sabha Secretariat a week before the Demand for Grants of the ministries is taken up. The Ministry of Parliamentary Affairs has detailed instructions on the expectations regarding the timeline and content of such reports. These reports are examined by the Department Related Parliamentary Standing Committees and the Parliamentary Committee on “Papers Laid on the Table”, which regularly takes to task ministries for delays in tabling reports of the government companies and autonomous bodies under their control.

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Unlike the executive, the judiciary is not under any legal obligation to prepare annual reports or table them before Parliament or the state legislature. A survey of the websites of the 25 high courts in the country revealed that only the high courts of Madras, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Tripura had published an annual report in the last two years. The high courts at Punjab and Haryana and Gujarat had annual reports available till the year 2018 and 2019 respectively. Websites of the Delhi and Jharkhand high courts host a very dated report while other websites have nothing available on them. At most, all high courts submit short reports to the Supreme Court which compiles all the information into one annual report on the judiciary. But unlike the Orissa High Court’s report, the SC’s annual report is largely a self-congratulatory exercise, which does little to introspect on the challenges facing the institution.

It would, of course, be naive to expect that the courts will have a sudden change of heart in favor of even elementary transparency measures such as publication of an annual report. It’s up to Parliament to enact a law that mandates high courts to publish an annual report not just on their performance but also on the performance of the district judiciary under their administrative control. This law should clearly outline the expected content of the report (the Supreme Court’s annual report spends 35 pages on portraits of the hon’ble judges) and establish a clear timeline for its publication.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 7, 2022 under the title ‘A report card of the court’. Jain is a legal researcher, Reddy is a lawyer

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