'Mobile' courts bring sidewalk justice to India

It is 10:45 a.m., and Magistrate Arya Vir is looking for a good spot to open his courtroom in the bustling Lajpat Nagar neighborhood.

His mission is instant justice, delivered at the very spot where crimes and misdemeanors are committed. It's part of a new effort to educate Indians about the law and to clear the expanding docket of India's overburdened courts, which are some of the busiest in the world.

Some of the shopkeepers smile at Judge Vir as he pulls out his folding chair, folding table, and hand-painted sign, but most treat his arrival as a bad omen. A few instantly close their shops and walk away.

Even so, within minutes, Vir's court goes into session and within one hour settles 20 separate cases of poor sanitation, encroachment onto public sidewalks, and other common offenses.

"We keep in mind our priority, to reduce the burden on the regular courts," says Vir, a retired Army colonel, who also has a law degree. "And the people are very happy with this quickie justice. Here there is complete transparency."

In the world's biggest democracy, it is not unusual for a civil trial to drag on for decades, or even generations. By some estimates, it would take 300 years at the current pace to clear India's civil court dockets. Just getting all the key players into a courtroom is a challenge; some litigants die before their cases can get heard.

Since Delhi's mobile courts experiment is just a year old, and involves only 20 judges, it is too early to gauge whether this idea will dramatically winnow the clogged dockets. Indeed, Delhi municipal court officials acknowledge that no other Indian city has yet studied the mobile courts to see if they could be duplicated elsewhere.

But still, the 20 retired men who have taken up positions as mobile magistrates have already had some effect. Judge Vir clears nearly 300 cases per month. It's a symbolic effort, but one that shows that Indian justice is not always slow.

Consider the case of Ajay Kumar, who sells belts and leather bags on the sidewalks in the busy Lajpat Nagar shopping district. He has been operating for six years, although his shop is unregistered. He has been fined once before, but still blocks the sidewalk with his wares.

"This is wrong, I am a poor man, I am a very small businessman," says Mr. Kumar, after paying a fine of 500 rupees ($11) to Judge Vir's mobile court clerk.

But while he says it will take five days of sales to make up for the financial loss from this fine - sales that he will continue to make from his illegal sidewalk shop - he agrees that the mobile court is a more humane way to bring justice. "This is better for me than the old way. If I go to court, I have to run around from this courtroom to that courtroom. How can I make money? It's a waste of time."

Terrence David, manager of the nearby Golden Dragon Chinese Restaurant, who has been charged with improper disposal of garbage, says that he thinks the swift justice of the mobile courts is "a good thing." "The speed is good, and [knowledgeable] people will definitely react and change their behavior."

His one complaint, politely made, is that it is difficult to dispose of garbage legally if the city government provides no free garbage pickup service. The local inspector, who issued the summons to Mr. David, tells him that the city will remove garbage for a $24 per-trip fee.

By the end of the mobile court session, 20 cases are cleared and thousands of rupees in fines are collected. (The judges are salaried; collected fees are handed over to the municipality.) The Lajpat Nagar shopkeepers look like beaten dogs. But Judge Vir sees it as another good day.

"Look at this fellow here," he says, pointing at the owner of a ramshackle juice shop. "We fined this fellow last July because his shop juts out into the street and creates a public nuisance and he's still doing it. But you have to teach people. Unless somebody is punished, nobody will learn to about the law."

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