Empty benches: Need to strengthen judiciary

The acute shortage of judges in our law courts at all levels is only the most visible aspect of a problem that ails our entire judicial system, right from the lowest to the highest level.

Among others, it is the main factor behind the delay in disposal of cases and the resultant backlog.

In proportion to its population, India has the lowest number of judges among the major democracies of the world. 

In its 120th report (1987) on manpower planning, the Law Commission placed the judge-population ratio at 10 judges per million people as against Australia’s 58, Canada 75, UK 100 and 130 in the US.

Based on population growth and the litigation rate, it had rightly recommended a five-fold increase, raising the strength of the judiciary to 50 judges per million population within five years.

While the judge-population ratio still remains little above 13 judges per million people, the litigant population has seen manifold increase thanks to growing literacy, rights awareness and improved transport systems.

Taking a serious view of this, the Apex court in the All India Judges Association vs.

Union of India and others case (1992) ruled that there should be at least a 10 per cent increase in the judges’ strength every year, as recommended by the Law Commission long ago. 

The court had set the deadline of 31 March, 2003 for the appointment of sufficient number of judges, besides the creation of about 38,000 posts of judicial officers within the next three years.

It also directed the Centre to impress upon the states the need for increasing the inadequate judge strength to wipe out the mounting judicial backlog.

But neither the Law Commission’s recommendation nor the direction of the Supreme Court could move the executive into making the required number of appointments.

The total strength of judicial officials, including the 31 judges of the Supreme Court, is little more than 17,600.

Even the existing judge strength further goes down when judicial vacancies are not filled for long.

The Supreme Court will have its full sanctioned strength of 31 judges, including the chief justice, with the recent appointment of two more judges, for the first time in several years. 

But it will soon be working at less than 75 per cent of its total sanctioned strength when one-third of its senior-most judges retire in quick succession by October 29 this year, the largest number of retirements in a single year since Independence.

The country will also see three chief justices for the first time in a year in 2014. 

The apex court’s backlog of nearly 70,000 cases has reached an all time high this year which may further increase if there has been some delay in filling up resultant vacancies. 

On an average, 5,000 new cases are filed  every month while 4,000 are disposed of adding  thereby about 1,000 more cases each month to the grand total.

As on August 8, last year, 280 posts of judges - about 31 per cent of the total sanctioned strength of 907 - were vacant in the country’s 24 high courts. 

And this figure might have further risen with the retirement of 26 more judges during the last few months. 

A decade back when there were 21 high courts, the vacancy level was 24 per cent. Though cases are piling up in high courts across the country, there seems to be no urgency to provide adequate number of judges to handle them.

Subordinate judiciary

Nor is the situation in the subordinate judiciary, reeling under the maximum backlog of cases (around 2.69 crore), any better.

It has suffered utter neglect in matters of judicial reforms at the hands of state governments. 

For, whether it is appointment of judges, filling of vacancies, or providing of basic facilities to enable subordinate courts to function at reasonable levels of efficiency, their attitude has been marked by indifference and sometimes political partisanship.

It is indeed shocking that against the actual requirement of 75,000 judicial officers, the sanctioned strength of judges remains just 17,151. 

Out of this, 3,170 posts are vacant and only 13,981 incumbents are working across the country, according to the Supreme Court’s report on vacancies and pending cases. 

It means that 15 per cent of the courts where citizens seek justice at the first instance are headless. 

Under the present collegium system, the appointment process for top judicial posts is unduly time-consuming as it requires consultation and approval from various constitutional authorities.

While it usually begins after the occurrence of a vacant seat, vacancies keep on arising on account of retirements, resignations or elevation of judges. 

Established lawyers are rarely willing to give up their lucrative practice to join the bench.

Until the proposed Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) comes into being to take care of judicial appointments, the existing selection process ought to be speeded up to fill the vacant positions expeditiously. 

Whenever a vacancy is expected to arise, steps should be initiated well in advance and the process of appointment completed beforehand. 

Filling of vacancies should be an ongoing process, instead of once in a blue moon exercise. 

In the case of resignation or death, the selection process should come into play without delay to ensure that the courts work with full strength.

It goes without saying that inadequate judge strength seriously hampers the judiciary’s ability to deliver justice within a time-bound frame.

It is bound to diminish people’s faith not only in the judiciary but democracy itself.

Inordinate delays also mean high rate of acquittals in criminal cases.

Unable to get justice from courts, victims often take the law into their hands to settle scores with culprits. This only aggravates the problem of law and order.

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