Revisit policy on Court Managers

In a recent Supreme Court order in All India Judges’ Association vs Union of India, the court expressed its “considered view” that assistance of ‘Court Managers’ “is needed for a proper administrative set up in a court.” The order, passed on an application seeking better infrastructure in subordinate courts, directs appointment of MBA-qualified court managers in each judicial district to assist the Principal District and Sessions Judges (PDJ) in performing court administration.

In two lines that follow, the court attempts to demarcate the role of court managers to be to “identify weaknesses in the court management systems and recommend workable steps under the supervision of their respective judges for rectifying the same”, in order to “enhance efficiency of a district’s judicial system” and “enable District Judges to devote more time to their core work, that is, judicial functions”.

On the face of it, the appointment of a well-qualified person solely in-charge of court administration (as opposed to a judicial officer-cum-administrative head) is a logical step towards improving our court systems. However, this experiment, already underway in a few courts across India, has not met with success thus far.

Unfortunately, the recent SC order fails to acknowledge this, even while reiterating the need for appointing court managers across all subordinate courts in India. Nonetheless, this provides a good opportunity to revisit the idea of court managers, reassess the need for them and see how best, if at all, they can fit into the Indian judicial system. 

Court manager posts were provided for in the 13th Finance Commission Report (FC), which allocated Rs 300 crore for a fixed period of five years (2010-2015). However, the report was silent on the nature and tenure of these proposed appointments. In a subsequent notification by the Ministry of Finance (September 20, 2010), broad suggestions on ‘functions, responsibilities and qualifications of Court Managers’ were laid down, with no clarification as to their permanency or position within the existing hierarchy of court administration.

Consequently, given the time-bound nature of the funds, around 400 court managers were hastily appointed across India, almost all of them on a yearly contractual basis. This non-permanent and ‘outsider’ nature of these appointments forms the basis for various issues concerning this post.

To elaborate, the court managers have faced stiff resistance from an uncooperative administrative staff, who don’t feel the need to oblige an inexperienced, temporary ‘outsider’. On the other hand, even if a judicial officer wishes to entrust administrative duties to her court manager, the court Rules continue to vest all administrative power and responsibilities solely with her, thereby defeating the very purpose of these appointments.

Further, the role demarcation of a court manager is neither practical nor categorical. For example, as per the Ministry of Finance notification (2010), a court manager is expected to assess the ‘quality of adjudication’. This, a court manager is ill-equipped and unqualified to do.

However, the ground reality, as per the National Judicial Academy report on the status of court managers (2017), shows that in a few states, they are carrying out mundane tasks such as checking attendance registers, making monthly case-status reports, etc. This demotivates well-qualified individuals from being part of the judiciary. The fact that this is an ill-thought out policy can also be seen in the huge disparity in pay-scales, varying between Rs 20,000 to Rs 55,000 across various states.

The court managers themselves are unsure about their status. As per the NJA report, around 27 of them appointed in Andhra Pradesh were removed by a notification in 2016. This was
because the 13th Finance Commission had failed to provide for continued funding for court managers, leaving it entirely to individual HCs and state governments, who can overnight alter their pay-scales or dispense with these positions altogether. 

Therefore, before venturing into appointing any more court managers, the government and the judiciary need to remove the roadblocks that have already arisen and are likely to arise, in order to ensure smooth integration of court managers into the judicial system. The fact that this time the direction for appointments is coming from the top court shows a level of acceptance within the judiciary, which in itself is a welcome step.

However, it is imperative that the following critical points are addressed: one, create a permanent court manager post in all PDJ courts to ensure long-term engagement; two, clearly demarcate their position within the administrative hierarchy — ideally, they should report directly to the presiding judicial officer and their roles should be distinct from the permanent administrative staff; three, amend the applicable provision of law to entrust administrative power and duties to court managers; and four, provide lucrative pay-scales as well as adequate support staff to attract qualified and experienced persons.

The above will not only increase efficiency and capacity of judicial officers as originally intended, but also help make our courts better workplaces.

(Kinhal is Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy; Kaul is Research Associate at DAKSH)

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Revisit policy on Court Managers

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