What Parameters Should We Use to Judge Our Judges?

Performance indicators recently recommended by the NITI Aayog won't really help.

A recent news report indicated that the NITI Aayog is working on a proposal to introduce performance reviews for judges across the country. As the number of pending cases increase every year, and delays in the system get exacerbated, the need to monitor the progress of cases in the system cannot be overlooked.

It was reported that an official of the NITI Aayog said the performance index being created has about half-a-dozen indicators, with some of the possible ones being the case load per judge, duration of proceedings, cost per case, clearance rate and court budgets. It was also reported that the judges were not in favour of such an index. Whether the judges spoken to were aware of the indicators being used in the performance index is unclear, however there are some inherent concerns with the indicators listed above which point towards a need for a deeper relook at how such a performance index can be developed.

Take the indicator ‘case load per judge’. How will this help determine the performance of a judge? For example, let us compare two judges in two different districts in Karnataka – one in Bengaluru and one in Bengaluru Rural. As per the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), there are ~92,000 cases pending in Bengaluru with 47 judges, and ~1,12,000 cases pending in Bengaluru Rural with 33 judges; this means the approximate case load per judge will be 1,957 cases for a judge in Bengaluru and 3,394 cases for a judge in Bengaluru Rural. Further, the number of cases distributed among judges of the same cadre often varies widely.

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Therefore, if there are insufficient judges in a particular district, if one district is more litigious than another, or if cases are not evenly distributed among judges of the same cadre, such judges will be ranked poorly in comparison to their counterparts for reasons that are beyond the control of that individual judge. Similarly, measuring the performance of a judge on ‘cost per case’ would be problematic as the costs associated with a case would be out of the control of the judge. Even court budgets are not in the hands of individual judges and are decided by those having administrative powers over the courts.

An indicator such as ‘duration of proceedings’, though valid, requires some thought and planning before being used as a performance indicator. A mere recording of the duration of proceedings based on the count of cases available on the NJDG would be incorrect for lack of appreciation of the nature of cases.

For example, some courts have a separate case type for bail matters, and these cases tend to be disposed much faster when compared with a full criminal trial; if a court having a separate case type for bail matters had a large volume of such cases, such a court could have a lower ‘duration of proceedings’ as the duration could be skewed toward the lower end of the spectrum. This would adversely affect the ‘performance’ of judges in courts which do not have such a case type.

Therefore, benchmarks need to established for different case types and the duration of proceedings ought to be measured against such benchmarks based on the nature of cases.

The need to monitor the progress of cases in court is vital for providing citizens justice in an efficient and speedy manner. While factors such as adequate infrastructure, manpower and the willingness of parties and advocates to not delay cases play a role in the speedy progress of cases, having proactive judges is important and will go a long way in ensuring speedy access to justice.

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There are international bodies such as International Framework for Court Excellence and the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice which have come out with ‘Global Measures of Court Performance’ and the ‘European Union Justice Scoreboard’ that seek to measure the quality and efficiency of the judiciary. While all the indicators used by such bodies may not be feasible in the Indian context, indicators such as trial date certainty, pre-trial custody and usage of technology in publishing orders and judgments are indicators worth considering for the Indian judiciary.

With the NITI Aayog aiming to come out with a comprehensive index for measuring the performance of judges, it is hoped that the views of all stakeholders in the system and experts working in the field of judicial reforms be considered so as to develop a holistic system of measuring judicial performance.

Shruthi Naik is a research associate at DAKSH, Bangalore.