In the realm of jurisprudence, the adage “justice delayed is justice denied” has long been accepted as a fundamental truth. However, in Sri Lanka, this maxim has transcended from a mere saying to a stark reality, as the prolonged delay in legal proceedings within the country’s judicial system continues to be a violation of the principles of law and order. Beyond land disputes, this systemic issue has infiltrated various spheres of litigation, leaving individuals trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of legal limbo.
Recent discussions within Sri Lanka’s parliament have shed light on the underlying factors contributing to the protracted legal delays. The Minister of Justice, Mr Wijedasa Rajapaksa, has presented a comprehensive overview of the situation, revealing a dire shortage of judges and an overburdened court system. With only 18 judges per million people, the establishment of 174 new courts was recommended by the Judicial Service Commission, a proposition hampered by the country’s economic challenges.
The Supreme Court, comprising 17 judges, grapples with a staggering 5,482 pending cases, leaving each judge to address approximately 322 cases. The Court of Appeal faces a similar situation with 20 judges handling 3,423 cases, amounting to an average of 171 cases per judge. Civil Appeals Courts and Commercial High Courts confront their own caseload crises, with each judge addressing hundreds of cases, revealing the overwhelming scale of the issue.
The issue is not confined to a single facet of the legal system; it pertains to both civil and criminal cases. Disturbingly, criminal cases often drag on for 15 years or more, with some concluding after a decade. This pervasive problem necessitates a comprehensive approach to resolution.
While augmenting the number of judges and establishing new judicial complexes is a start, it is only a partial solution. A thorough examination of the legal framework, procedural modifications, and substantial increases in judicial resources are imperative. Policymakers must consider contemplating restructuring the legal process to enhance efficiency and expedite cases, thus diminishing the burden on the courts.
We know that there are two courts that can try a criminal case. They are Magistrate Court and High Court. But the starting point of any criminal case is the Magistrate’s Court. If there is sufficient evidence to file a case against the suspect in the Magistrate’s Court, the Magistrate of that Court can present a charge.
One major concern is the extensive time gap between the initiation of criminal cases and their conclusion. Delays of such magnitude expose witnesses and evidence to unforeseen variables, including the passage of time, changes in residency, and even the death of key witnesses. These factors jeopardize the integrity of the judicial process and render the pursuit of justice futile.
Moreover, the Attorney General’s Department faces its own challenges, namely a deficiency of legal officers and staff, leading to further delays in providing instructions for criminal cases.
Former Justice Minister President’s Attorney Mr Ali Sabri stated in Parliament on November 11, 2021, that the Attorney General has informed that there is a shortage of 600 legal officers and non-legal staff members in the Attorney General’s Department and that there are delays in providing instructions for criminal cases. There he states that he is going to recruit 50 senior lawyers to remedy this situation.
While making such a statement, the then Minister of Justice further stated that many reasons beyond the purview of the Attorney General’s Department have contributed to the delay in the cases.
The lack of a sufficient number of courts, the presence of a limited number of forensic medical officers, the transfer of those officers, the presence of a limited number of inspectors, one officer having to appear in several courts a day, and many other factors are related to the delay in these cases.
Decentralizing the authority of the Attorney General’s office to the district level has been proposed as a potential remedy, streamlining the legal process and expediting cases. This approach would empower District Attorney Generals to directly liaise with police stations and issue necessary instructions, effectively reducing unnecessary delays.
Embracing digital transformation within the police department and judicial institutions is another critical step towards minimizing case delays. Digitization can significantly enhance the efficiency of the legal process, enabling quicker access to case records, streamlined communication, and more rapid decision-making.
However, such transformative measures require unwavering commitment from the government. Discussions and debates alone will not suffice; concrete action plans must be devised and executed. With a comprehensive reform strategy encompassing changes in court hours, procedural modifications, and judicious utilization of retired judges, the government can address this longstanding issue and rectify the grievous delay in justice.
Ultimately, the commitment to tackle this issue lies within the determination of the government to overhaul the legal system comprehensively. For justice delayed truly remains justice denied, and the time for substantial change has come.