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City Life: Delhi - Jury is out on efforts to speed up justice

City Life DELHI
PETER BLEACH is unlikely to benefit, but after more than 50 years the Indian justice system is beginning to work out ways to become more efficient.

Mr Bleach, an arms trader from Yorkshire, was arrested in Bombay in December 1995 and has been in custody ever since. Shortly before his arrest, he was on board a plane which dropped a large consignment of arms in West Bengal. He was charged with "abetting the waging of war against India", a charge comparable to treason, carrying only two sentences: life imprisonment or death.

Mr Bleach has never denied that he was on board the plane, but claims that he was a fall-guy for the real organiser of the operation who has disappeared. His trial, in which he is defending himself, enters its final stage next week. If, as expected, it continues into the new year, it will have been going through a Calcutta court for three years.

Mr Bleach is one of tens of thousands of victims of a justice system which is so swamped in cases that it is barely able to function. Thirty million cases are believed to be going through India's courts, from those given their first hearing yesterday to others which have been in progress for so long that most of the litigants are dead.

It is not just country courts that are haunted by the ghosts of Jarndyce and Jarndyce (of Dickens' Bleak House). Even important and high profile cases in the capital, New Delhi, have become overwhelmed. In 1985, a sensational spying case broke in which a number of senior officials in the office of the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, and the presidential secretariat were accused of having dealings with foreign spies. The court began examining witnesses in 1991, but of 188 on the list, only 59 have so far given evidence. This year the court has found time for the examination of only three. One witness has been testifying for the past eight years.

Mr Bleach has remained cheerful throughout his years in custody. Bernard Andrews, of the Deputy High Commission in Calcutta, who sees him regularly, says he is still in good spirits.

But others find it harder to cope. A Delhi pensioner, who invested his life savings in a crooked company, attempted to burn himself to death this year after a court granted yet another delay in the proceedings for the recovery of his money. In September, a woman was given an award for her courage and determination when she won a 14-year battle for the custody of her son. But after Dhanvanti Joshi was awarded custody by the Supreme Court, her ex-husband, who had never set eyes on his son, was able to start proceedings all over again by going to the Family Court.

As Mr Bleach would probably attest, the worst aspect of Indian justice is the large number of people who spend years on remand. Of the total prison population of 270,000, almost three-quarters are on trial. In a scandal some years ago, it was discovered that thousands of prisoners on remand had spent more time in prison than the maximum sentences they could have received if convicted. This was partially righted by setting them all free.

But now there is growing impetus for thorough reform of the justice system. The Supreme Court has already done much to modernise its operations. It has 17,000 cases on its books, which Dr Abhishek Singhvi, a former solicitor general of India, assures is "almost zero - down from 200,000 in the early Nineties". The court has done it, Dr Singhvi says, "by applying ordinary management techniques, particularly computerisation. But the most important factor has been a perceptible change in attitude. People have begun taking pride in the court again, because we are getting to grips with things."

Dr Singhvi has been a member of a group of Indian and American lawyers who have drawn up proposals based partly on Californian experience, for "declogging the pipeline". But inertia remains a fact of Indian life. "Our proposals have been pending with the Law Ministry for three years," Dr Singhvi says.

Peter Popham