It is important to understand that in discussions about the judiciary in India, the conventional perspectives discussed are mostly about pendency of cases, vacancy of judges, women in judiciary and gender bias. Not much is spoken about the significant role of judicial infrastructure and connected budgetary allocations. From courtrooms to digital databases, everything contributes to the effectiveness of the judiciary.

We explore key overlooked aspects of judicial infrastructure that require immediate attention. The data and findings below are based on a report called ‘State of Judiciary: A Report on Infrastructure, Budgeting, Human Resources, and ICT’ by the Centre for Research and Planning, Supreme Court of India (November 2023).

The shortage of courtrooms results in significant backlogs in legal proceedings which leads to pendency of cases. It is to be noted that, for the strength of 25,081 judges in the district judiciary, there is a shortage of 4,250 courtrooms. The Andhra Pradesh and Gauhati High Courts have a shortage of 38 per cent and 30 per cent of courtrooms, respectively. Addressing this issue of shortage of courtrooms is important to invest in infrastructure expansion that will ensure timely resolution of cases.

Inclusive infrastructure

In a circular dated July 25, 2022, with reference to a circular of April 5, 2018, the Supreme Court decided to re-open the crèche/childcare centre in court premises. However, the circular also made it clear that whoever wants to send the child to the crèche shall do so at their own risk. When it comes to District Courts, the statistics are dismal. Only 13.1 per cent of District Court complexes have a childcare room or facility.

The Supreme Court has come up with a first-of-its-kind ‘Handbook on Combating Stereotypes Concerning Persons with Disabilities’ to transcend beyond the derogatory terminologies and stereotypes used for persons with disabilities (PwDs) on November 2023. Though this was a progressive move, when it comes to numbers for District Court Complexes for PwDs, only 50 per cent of District Court complexes have ramps, 40 per cent have designated parking spots, 30.4 per cent have separate wash-rooms for PwDs and wheelchairs are available in less than 30 per cent of the court complexes. It’s important to note that only when the PwDs have access to basic facilities and services to ensure their full participation in the judicial system, can we be called a progressive society.

Having basic health and sanitation facilities is a fundamental right of every citizen. While at a broader level, the Swachh Bharat Mission and encouraging people to use toilets by building them have been game-changers in Indian public health and sanitation; unfortunately when it comes down to the judiciary, especially the lower judiciary, the state of affairs is poor on this aspect as well.

Further, 88 per cent of District Court complexes have toilets for males and 80 per cent have separate ladies’ toilets. While this may seem fair and balanced, it is to be noted that only 6.7 per cent of toilets have a facility for sanitary napkin vending machines and are female-friendly which is a dismal percentage and is a disturbing statistic. While 88 per cent of court complexes have wash-rooms, only 40 per cent (266 out of 665 court complexes) have wash-rooms that were fully functioning. Moreover, only 53 per cent (354 out of 665 court complexes) have wash-rooms present on each floor. It goes without saying that these are basics and have to be attended to on top priority.

Quality of judicial infra

Mere adequacy of infrastructure does not ensure quality. Budgets might be allotted for the courtrooms and other citizen-centric initiatives within the judiciary, but they should be in functional condition and equipped with state-of-the-art facilities. Even today we find courtrooms with seeping rainwater, plaster falling from the ceilings, more particularly at the lower judiciary levels.

Also, only 59.2 per cent of district courtrooms have power backup which nullifies the NCMS Committee’s Baseline Report on Court Development Planning System that recommended that the entire electrical provision in a courtroom should have 100 per cent power backup. Reliable power backups and uninterrupted court proceedings are crucial to ensure smooth functioning of the judiciary.

These are legacy issues over almost seven decades which have not been attended to seriously. While the present government at the Centre has been taking proactive steps in allocating appropriate budgets, proper progress is only possible with a synchronised working of the government and the judiciary on all aspects of judicial infrastructure. One cannot say that the other is not cooperating.

Due credit will also have to be given to the judiciary for a significant revamp of digital infrastructure by enabling of virtual hearings; starting live streaming of court proceedings; digitisation of hundreds of thousands of documents; technology related training through judicial academies, and more.

Way forward

Analysing the judicial infrastructure with surveys, identifying infrastructure gaps in judiciary with respect to courtrooms, basic health and sanitation facilities and provision of other citizen-centric amenities is important. Court infrastructure should align with the Universal Design Principles developed in 2011 by the joint effort of architects, academicians and disability rights activists, to enable seamless access to any building. All the High Courts should be mandated to submit annual infrastructure status reports, the budgetary spends, and steps taken for the maintenance and renovation of existing court complexes and on building new ones. District High Courts should prepare annual reports on infrastructure, based on requirements laid down by parent High Courts. Investing in judicial infrastructure is not about building courtrooms but also creating an environment to serve justice efficiently and effectively.

The writer specialises in corporate disputes in New Delhi and Chennai, and is author of ‘Defaulter’s Paradise Lost’ by Thomson Reuters