Of the many pending administrative reforms in India, the burgeoning volume of government litigation often appears to be the most intractable. It has often been repeated in public conversation that the Indian state accounts for 46% of all litigation before Indian courts, though nobody really knows how this figure was arrived at.
Over the last few years, various institutions studying the issue of government litigation, such as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law & Justice, National Law School of India and Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy have all reported an inability to collect accurate information on the pendency of government litigation before Indian courts.
As with much of the administrative chaos within the Indian state, the problem begins with poor record keeping by the Indian state. Even technology, often brandished by the Indian state as the silver bullet for its administrative chaos, has failed to deliver results on the basic issue of providing accurate data on litigation conducted by the Indian state.
The birth and life of LIMBS
In 2016, the Department of Legal Affairs, Ministry of Law and Justice, launched the Legal Information Management and Briefing System or LIMBS as a web-based common access platform to be used by all government departments to manage their litigation. Based on a software developed by the Indian Railways to manage its litigation, LIMBS was supposed to change the way the government of India maintained its litigation records.
As of today, information entered on LIMBS cannot be viewed by the general public. Only a dashboard displaying broad aggregate statistics is made available for public viewing. These aggregated statistics are virtually useless for the purpose of conducting any meaningful analysis of trends within government litigation. This is because these statistics only indicate aggregated information per ministry without providing either historical data or information on the type of litigation the ministry is engaged in.
For example, the Ministry of Railways is listed as one of the most litigious but we have no idea whether this litigation is contractual litigation against vendors and suppliers or employment disputes and how such litigation compares against previous years. This is basic information required for any academics studying trends of government litigation.
As per the aggregated data available on LIMBS, the total volume of government litigation currently pending before Indian courts is at 506,135 cases, which is just a drop in the ocean of litigation in India. As per the National Judicial Data Grid, there are a total of 40,163,767 cases pending before the district and taluka courts and a total of 5,621,420 cases pending before the High Courts. If the LIMBS figures are true, the Indian government accounts for only 1.11% of all litigation before Indian courts, not 46% as reported by even the Ministry of Law and Justice in its public documents. It has also given this figure to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice.
This of course does not include litigations by the state governments. Those figures would be quite heartening except, nobody knows if this data is currently being collected. Chances are that the share of litigation conducted by the government is much lower than the touted figure of 46% but given the lack of public access to LIMBS there is no way to objectively verify the figures quoted by the government.
Open up LIMBS for the public
A simple way to check the accuracy of the information available on LIMBS is to open up the entire database for public viewing so that citizens and academics can independently audit the working of LIMBS. Not only is such transparency mandated by Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (which requires proactive disclosures of information by the government) but it would also be in line with the National Data Sharing and Accessibility Policy announced by the government many years ago.
The NDSAP was basically meant to ensure that all departments adopted open data policies and that all non-sensitive data generated through public funds are made available to the public. Given that all the data in LIMBS pertains to litigation taking place in open courts, the data is most certainly not sensitive information.
The inexplicable and illegal decision of the Department of Legal Affairs to deny public access to LIMBS also means that academics attempting to understand the workings of the government through litigation data, are often required to build their own data-sets from the judiciary’s websites – this is a painful, time-consuming and expensive exercise because of the poor quality of judicial websites.
Accountability of public funds
The transparency of the LIMBS database is not just a question of administrative efficiency but also a question of accountability of public funds spent on expensive government litigation. In a recent report, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice acknowledged that there had been a sharp rise (260% between 2009-’10 to 2019-’20) in the fees being paid to all the government advocates and panel counsels in various High Courts and Tribunals.
The committee was unable to dig deeper because of a lack of data and it berated the Department of Legal Affairs for being data deficient and urged the department to collect state wise data to optimally calculate the posts of government advocates and pleaders needed for handling the litigation on behalf of the government.
Many state governments have developed their own online case management systems and have similarly not allowed public access. A notable exception to the norm is the Systemised Administration & Regulation of Tendering and Handling All Court Cases database developed by the government of West Bengal, where the department wise petitions filed by government advocates at the High Court of Calcutta are publicly available.
Data deficiency coupled with restricted access with regard to government litigation is a serious concern. In addition to making the performance evaluation of panel counsels impossible, the lack of granular data on department-wise litigations makes it difficult to review the role of the courts in matters where the government is a party. Given that government litigation is funded by the public exchequer the burden of disclosure should be even higher.
The law minister would do well to order the opening up of LIMBS for public viewing.
Prashant Reddy T is a lawyer. Chitrakshi Jain is a legal researcher.