Man is born with some fundamental rights such as right to freedom of expression and right to fair trial which have been enshrined in our Constitution. Right to freedom of expression is subject to some reasonable restrictions but right to fair trial is absolute and indispensable, which is not subjected to any sort of restrictions. But this very fundamental right is more often being hamstrung in our country owing to especially acute shortage of judges both at lower and higher courts, causing excruciating delay in the dispensation of justice and thus wreaking untold sufferings to the justice seekers.
As of July 30 this year, there are only 5 judges (including the Chief justice) in the Appellate Division (AD) and 91 in the High Court Division (HC). The Chief Justice will retire on December 31 this year. Let us throw some light on the number of cases those are pending with different courts in the country. The number of cases pending with the AD is 15,225 while it was a whopping 452,963 with the HC till December last year, according to a Law lab (a Law Chamber that carries on research on legal and constitutional issues). In 1974 the AD had five judges and the number of HC judges was 12. The number of pending cases with the AD and the HC was at that time 4,049 and 28,186 respectively.
Within the span of one year i.e. from January 1 to 31 December last year, as many as 739,563 cases were disposed of in different courts of Bangladesh, said the report. The Supreme Court administration does not have the statistics on the number of cases filed and disposed of last year in the lower and higher courts due to Covid-19. If the above case disposal rate continues (without adding new cases), it will take almost five and a half years to dispose this backlog of cases. And, if together with new cases (say, close to 9 lakh cases are filed with different courts a year) and the backlog of cases remains constant or goes up little by little, it is no doubt beyond the estimation of a human being to figure out as to when and how these cases would be disposed of. Obviously, this state of affairs will cripple the fundamental right of the citizens to have fair and speedy trial under article 35(5) of the Constitution, leading to corrode people’s trust over the judiciary.
With the pending cases piling up due to acute shortage of judges, the authority concerned seems to have no specific plan about how to deal with this massive problem decently - not to speak expeditiously. There is no career plan to appoint judges to Appellate and the High Court divisions of the Supreme Court and even to the lower courts across the country although appointing judges is a continuous process against the vacancy or as and when the post of the judges falls vacant. Over the past two decades shortage of judges at all tiers of judiciary had contributed to the astronomical rise in case backlogs and the Covid-19 induced deadlock turned the situation worse, causing abysmal delay in case disposal and the resultant untold sufferings to the justice seekers.
Though it sounds abnormal but the reality is that is each judge of the AD is burdened with more than 3,045 cases on an average with the number of judges coming down to only 5 from 11 in 2009 following the appointments and retirements of some judges. The situation is even worse in the HC Division as each of its judges is burdened with a stupendous 4,923 cases on an average. Three out of ninety one judges are not being allowed to conduct the bench as an enquiry is going on against them since August 22, 2019. Besides, three HC judges are now conducting the International Crimes Tribunal-1 for disposing of the 1971 war crime related cases. The judges at the lower courts are also encumbered with a huge backlog of cases as there are only 1,700 judges to deal with a gigantically 3.46 millions cases now pending with the lower courts across the country. This suggests each of the lower court judges shall have to dispose 2,038 cases on an average. To deal with this massive backlog of cases and to ensure a faster case disposal mechanism, Bangladesh Law Commission in its report in 2014 recommended the government to recruit at least 3,000 judges at the lower tier of our judiciary and thereby reducing the sufferings of hundreds and thousands of people seeking justice. They also focused on digitization of case management system in a bid to ensure a transparent and faster case disposal.
To fashion the judiciary, to digitize it, to revamp it, to equip it with right type of judges and to train them and last but not least to create and maintain a high standard of morale is a tremendously difficult job in the circumstances narrated above. But it is not insurmountable one, if all the stakeholders involved in this very important organ of the state come forward with right earnest to resolve the long standing problem. People want fair and at the same time speedy trial as well. If these logical aspirations of theirs continue to remain unfulfilled for days, for months and even for scores of year, people’s trust to the justice system or to the judiciary as a whole will definitely start corroding which eventually might turn out to be very detrimental in matters related to the establishment of good governance. Besides, it can lead to lawlessness in a society which we live in. A sound and efficient judiciary can expedite case disposal to the extent as desired by the justice seekers. And it can also bring back people’s traditional trust in the dispensation of justice within the framework of the state system. Needless to say, a decent and sustainable coordination between the bar and bench must play a very important role for a fair and quick disposal the pending cases. The sooner these are done the better and the well-known anathema “Justice delayed justice denied” will cease to exist gradually.