Annals of Backlog and Congestion: New Delhi, India

State court leaders and managers take heart! Things could be worse. Much worse!

In a widely circulated story last week, Sam Dolnick of the Associated Press (AP) reported that, according to Chief Justice A.P.Shah, the High Court in New Delhi is so behind that it could take up to 466 years (not days or even months, years) to clear its backlog of cases. In a vast understatement, retired Supreme Court Justice J.S. Verma, who is critic of the system, is quoted as saying “I don’t think you would have to wait four centuries to have a case decided.”

Reasons cited for the backlog in India include the usual suspects: lack of accountability for results, corruption, inefficiency, and an uneven application of the rule of law favoring the wealthy and well-connected. Another is that India does not have enough sitting judges. "It’s a completely collapsed system,” Prashant Brushan, a well known lawyer in New Delhi, is quoted as saying. “This country only lives under the illusion that there is a judicial system.”

What is particularly noteworthy and instructive about this story is the New Delhi High Court’s use of its jaw-dropping congestion rate as the measure of efficiency (or in this story, inefficiency) to stimulate reform and buttress its appeal for an injection of more judicial resources. Congestion rate is the pending caseload divided by the number of resolved cases. It estimates the amount of time it would take a court to dispose of its pending caseload given its current clearance rate.

As the New Delhi report suggests, congestion rate is a more meaningful and persuasive efficiency measure than backlog (percent of pending cases “older” than an established threshold) and clearance rate (the number of outgoing cases as a percentage of incoming cases), and even other measures such as the number of judges per capita. In a 1999 technical paper, Court Performance Around the World: A Comparative Perspective, Maria Dakolias of the World Bank reported that it would take Ecuador a little more than ten years to dispose of its pending caseloads, the poorest congestion rate among 12 countries she compared.

I don’t know what’s good or bad, but I immediately know that 466 years of congestion is really bad. I also have a sense of the scope, if not the nature, of the solutions. It will take more than a band aid to fix the New Delhi High Court’s backlog and congestion.

The lesson is that if we want our performance measurement initiatives to be noticed and used – what gets measured gets attention and gets done – we need to identify and develop measures that translate abstract concepts like efficiency and effectiveness into terms that are clear, unambiguous, and actionable and that capture the attentions of the public and other stakeholders.

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