Unsafe, Unhygienic and Inaccessible: The Sorry State of Delhi’s District Courts

Replete with safety and security lapses, infrastructure in district courts in Delhi and the NCR need urgent fixing.

Startling images of a record room in the Rohini district court have surfaced, bringing the spotlight back on the infrastructure in Delhi’s district courts. In a complaint letter to the district judge, advocate Birender Sangwan noted how the room meant to store and preserve judicial records was a complete mess, replete with seepage from a nearby toilet and with electric wires hanging loose.

This is not the first time the conditions inside a court complex have come under question. In January, a doctor submitted a written complaint to the district judge after being served stale food – which made her sick with food poisoning – at the canteen in the Rohini district court complex, .

The Supreme Court has called out the infrastructure conditions of district courts in Delhi in as far back as 2000. The court’s order in the Delhi Judicial Service Association vs Union of India case noted:

“Everyone realises so. Jammed court rooms, crowded and dark corridors, overflowing toilets, insanitary conditions, it is almost nauseating to visit these courts.”

Close to two decades later, the situation has barely improved.

A recent study we undertook of the state of physical infrastructure of district courts in the national capital region (NCR) threw up appalling results. We surveyed six district courts in Delhi and two each in Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, using parameters laid down by the National Court Management Systems Baseline Report on Court Development Planning System (Infrastructure and Budgeting), 2012. The report identifies basic design and infrastructure standards for six vital components of a court complex: court building, lawyers’ spaces, facility centre, utility block, judicial lock-ups and parking facilities.

The report also specifies a four-pronged purpose that court infrastructure must fulfill:

– Provide optimum working conditions leading to increased efficiency of judicial officers and administrative staff;
– Provide easy access to justice to all and particularly to the underprivileged, persons with disability, women and senior citizens;
– Instill public trust in the judicial process; and
– Provide for the safety and security of judges, administrative staff, litigants, witnesses and under-trial prisoners.

We considered infrastructure standards set forth in this report as the blueprint for our survey. We assessed court complex areas open and accessible to the general public/litigants to ascertain three basic features: if a person can locate where to go upon entering a court complex, if the location is accessible and how comfortable the location is.

The state of Delhi’s district courts

While district courts in Delhi have better infrastructure than their neighbouring counterparts, they still lack standards one would expect from modern-day courts. There is a palpable indifference towards providing an accessible, safe and comfortable space for persons visiting these courts, particularly vulnerable persons such as those with physical or visual impairment, minimal or no literacy, senior citizens and women.

Among the six district courts in Delhi, Saket court stands out as the most well-equipped of the court complexes. It could serve as a blueprint for other court complexes to be revamped. It is the only court with a functional help desk and guide maps on every floor, proper lighting, large waiting areas and adequate signages inside the main complex.

In general, however, district courts in the capital acutely lack disabled-friendly infrastructure. The absence of ramps to access elevators/lifts to reach upper floors and disabled-friendly toilets, among others, was almost universal.

The lack of designated waiting areas was another glaring issue. We found people sitting on the floor outside courtrooms awaiting their turn in the Patiala House court. The court had a waiting area situated further away from the main court building and did not even have a case display system to allow people to wait there until their turn was due. Most often, the only seating provided was in the form of a few seats scattered around the court complex. Electronic case display systems in common areas, which would help litigants know when their case was up for hearing, were seen only in two out of six courts in Delhi.

The state of the toilets was another story altogether. The Saket court fared reasonably well on accessibility and cleanliness of toilets, but hygiene levels elsewhere were terrible. It is shocking that court administration does not care for what female advocates and litigants will do if toilets remain unusable. Another grave absence was floor plans with marked emergency exits. Even courts that had designated waiting areas did not clearly display where emergency exits were.

Security lapses

Security arrangements need to be strengthened in district courts in the capital. While baggage screening machines were placed at more than one entry point, not all of them were fully functional. Not all courts had designated entry points for advocates and litigants, and even the ones that did, did not adhere to it strictly. For instance, the Karkardooma court, despite having separate points of entry, allowed litigants to pass through gates meant for advocates only, although security personnel were stationed at these gates. Security lapses such as these have been highlighted previously when undertrials have been shot inside court premises, with the most recent shootout occurring in May at the Tis Hazari court. 

While the state of infrastructure in Delhi’s district courts is generally deplorable, court facilities in other NCR areas are far worse. Bharatpur and Alwar courts, located in Rajasthan, were found to have the least number of facilities. Bharatpur court did not even have a designated toilet for women. Several courts outside Delhi share complexes with mini-secretariats, leading to important utilities being housed in these secretariat buildings. For instance, in Gurgaon a post office and an ATM are situated far from the court complex, inconveniencing several people visiting the court. In general, court complexes became visibly dirtier, lacked elevators and ramps, had barely any signages and felt more and more unsafe as one progressed farther away from Delhi.

While inaugurating a new district court complex in Bhopal earlier this month, the chief justice of India said that no state government could cite lack of funds as an excuse to deny proper infrastructure in courts and that litigants must be allowed an ‘atmosphere of dignity’. Unfortunately, the district court infrastructure even in the country’s capital disregards people accessing it every day. Even if present, these facilities have been neglected. It is unacceptable that clean washrooms, seating provisions and safety and security of all those visiting courts are still not given priority. It is high time the state governments and judicial authorities became more serious about providing basic infrastructure in district courts.

Amrita Pillai is a Research Fellow at the Vidhi Center for Legal Policy, New Delhi.