Citizens’ suffering in the face of pending cases highlights urgent call for reform

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In late June, Indramaya (name changed) emerged from Kathmandu’s District Police Range. The case that her ex-husband had filed some 28 years ago had finally concluded.

The case is a complicated one. Her ex-husband, Suk Bahadur filed a case in 1996 accusing Indramaya of carrying another person’s child after a stillbirth in 1996. Suk Bahadur and his mother even threw Indramaya out of the house which made things even worse.

Angry, Indramaya filed a defamation case against her husband which she won in 2001. She also won a property distribution case in 2009. She also used hospital records while filing for a divorce case against Suk Bahadur.

Upon losing these cases, Suk Bahadur accused Indramaya of using fake documents to win cases. He tried to file a complaint but police dismissed it. He moved to the Supreme Court demanding justice for him and his mother.

The two have been divorced for around 15 years. However, Indramaya, for the better part of 14 years, had to endure one false accusation after another. She was not the only person, a medical record officer at Prasuti Griha, Shanti Vaidya, also suffered a lot due to this case.

Indramaya is relieved for now as after around 14 years, all charges against her have been dropped. Following that, she can now carry on with her life without living in constant fear of being arrested by the police.

“Despite it all, she hasn’t claimed property or pursued bitterness. She remains hopeful that one day Suk Bahadur’s heart will change,” says Indramaya’s relative who was with her on the day.

Court cases like this carrying for a few decades have become a major problem in Nepal. According to court data, there are hundreds of thousands of pending cases in Nepal’s courts. As of July 16, there were 28,434 pending cases in the Supreme Court alone. Out of this, 15,149 cases are more than two years old, and 4,168 cases are more than five years old. 

The prolonged delivery of justice has wasted time for numerous individuals leading to anguish for many. These pending cases have even wasted government resources as people sent to prison based on preliminary investigations continue to serve time waiting for the court to act fast as they hope Nepal’s justice system gets a much-needed revamp.

Reasons for delay 

Under the condition of anonymity, a Supreme Court justice said case delays can be attributed to methodological and administrative factors. The main reason, the justice argued, was due to the lengthy process of the legislative procedures.

“These procedures include steps like setting deadlines, giving verdicts, scheduling dates for the hearing, and adjournments, all of which inherently consume time. It cannot be expedited without mutual consent from the involved parties,” said the justice.

Additionally, numerous procedural complexities exist within the judiciary system. After filing a case, the opposing party (defendant) must be duly informed. If the party initiating the case fails to provide essential details such as the defendant’s name, address, and contact information, or if the person remains untraceable despite the provided information, the timeline gets naturally disrupted, leading to delays. The Lalita Niwas land case is an example. The special court took over a year and a half to summon or inform the 165 defendants of the case.

Other delays are in cases that originate at the district level and get referred to the Supreme Court. Former justice Ekraj Acharya highlights such scenarios, especially in cases of land and property, are resolved in the Supreme Court and drag generations into it before getting solved.

Purnakumar Rai has been fighting a case that was filed by his grandfather Bhimsen Rai. The issue revolves around a land dispute that his grandfather, Bhimsen Rai, encountered back in 1969. Bhimsen’s neighbour, Bir Bahadur Shrestha, falsely asserted ownership of his land. Following a legal struggle, Bir Bahadur was found guilty of fraud by the Sankhuwasabha District Court on April 10, 1989. This verdict was upheld by both the Koshi District Court and the Eastern Regional Court.

In November 2000, Keshar Singh Rai, Bhimsen’s son, obtained land ownership documents for one piece of land from the Sankhuwasabha land revenue office, even though there were six pieces of land in dispute. A writ petition led the Supreme Court to step in on July 13, 2004, and mandate the registration of the land.

However, the office only permitted the registration of lot number 598. Subsequent appeals led to a September 18, 2011 order from the Dhankuta Appellate Court, calling for legal action due to ongoing rights disputes.

On January 26, 2017, the Supreme Court supported the Dhankuta Appellate Court’s decision. Keshar Singh returned to the Supreme Court on April 1, 2018, contesting a ruling by the Sankhuwasabha Land Revenue Office, but he lost again. Even the Dhankuta High Court dismissed his claim on December 15, 2019. Despite these setbacks, Keshar Singh is determined to pursue justice in the Supreme Court repeatedly, burdened by his familial responsibility.

Had Bhimsen Rai been alive, he would have navigated this legal journey at the age of 96. Following his demise, Keshar Singh, 79, shouldered the responsibility. Keshar Singh sometimes gets angry with the people in court rather than the one he is fighting the case against.

“I just want them to stop wasting my time,” said Keshar Singh.

Pushing for change

According to Justice Til Prasad Shrestha, the ‘two plus zero’ concept has been implemented in the district and high courts. The concept’s goal is to swiftly resolve cases that have been lingering for over two years in lower courts.

However, this is not possible in all cases as the nature of some is complex. Even the simple ones that reach the apex court get lost as major cases take precedence over it.

The lack of human resources is another reason for the delay in the case. The Supreme Court does not have enough justices. The government has no increased the posts which poses a major problem while tackling pending cases.

As per the constitution, there should be 21 justices in the Supreme Court and 160 judges in the High Courts. Currently, the Supreme Court only has 14 justices while high courts in Nepal only have 113 judges. Among the high courts of seven provinces, the position of chief judge is vacant in all except Dipayal. The situation is the same in district courts as 37 out of the 287 positions remain vacant. With a lack of judges and justices, pending cases never get solved.

There are many who reach the Supreme Court dissatisfied with the decisions of the high court, special court as well as revenue tribunal, foreign employment tribunal, etc. On top of that, the number of petitions filed claiming the violation of fundamental rights are also pending at the Supreme Court.

Justice Acharya says most want to resolve the cases on time. However, as they do not have enough people, it is hard to do so.

“We need motivated people in the justice system if we want to resolve all these pending cases,” said Acharya.

More complexities

What does not help is those using influence to delay or manipulate cases. There are many examples of cases involving constitutional disputes and domestic violence, where the parties have conspired and delayed the whole process. The Lokman Singh Karki case is evidence of that.

The corruption case that started when Suryanath Upadhyay was the chief commissioner of the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) is still pending in the Supreme Court five years after it was registered.

There are also cases where lawyers use the complexities of the system to file their cases, making hearings more difficult.

Over 15 years have passed since the Maoists initiated the peace process. During this time, Ramhari Shrestha, a businessman from Koteshwor, was abducted in Kathmandu, taken to Chitwan and killed. Only Govinda Bahadur Batala was the only person who was arrested but he too was later acquitted as the case is still under review.

When it comes to survivors of domestic violence, things are even worse, says advocate Meera Dhungana.

“Men with ancestral land force when out of their homes. They feel so hopeless, they take back the cases. The situation is dire,” says Dhungana.

Losing faith in justice

These pending cases have a major impact on people who feel their life has hit a standstill. Many are left frustrated as they cannot get a fresh start. People know that the quest for justice is a long one and are willing to spend their entire lives fighting for what they believe is their right.

“It has become a harsh reality in Nepal,” says human rights activist Mohna Ansari.

The court knows this too as stated by justices Sapana Pradhan Malla and Til Prasad Shrestha who in a verdict said, “delayed justice inflicts injustice upon citizens and erodes trust in the state structure itself.” 

Stakeholders know pending cases in court are not only due to a lack of justices and judges. They understand the entire justice system needs change.

Over the past 25 years, studies have proposed methods to help solve the issue of pending cases in court. In the past 15 years, the Supreme Court has undertaken nearly 10 research focused on expediting justice delivery.

The high-level judicial reform commission’s report recommended submitting debate notes during writ petition hearings, ensuring continuous hearings post the initial appearance, limiting each hearing to half an hour, and refining deadlines. 

It has suggested embracing alternative dispute resolution, streamlining procedures, categorising cases based on subject matter, launching targeted campaigns to resolve backlog cases, and implementing computer systems for efficient case management.

Similarly, the Royal Commission on Judicial Reforms, in 1984, emphasised the necessity for improved time limits and better comprehension of evidence. 

Despite these suggestions, effective implementation has been lacking in the Nepali law system.

This story was translated from the original Nepali version and edited for clarity and length.

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Gyawali is a senior journalist at Onlinekhabar.

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