Stressed out judges
In yet another impassioned appeal to address the crying shortage of judges in the country, Chief Justice TS Thakur has said he dreams of an India where ‘justice is not denied, not delayed or sold to anyone’. Sharpening his attack recently at Cuttack, he said the government cannot afford to deny the people their fundamental rights, which includes access to justice. While claiming that the Judiciary, as an institution, ‘has suffered the least erosion’, the CJI also said that it has the formidable task of ensuring that people languishing in jails for years are given justice at the earliest and people waiting for justice for years do not have to wait much longer. In this context, he cited the Law Commission recommendations in 1987 to increase the number of judges to 44,000; but nearly three decades later, the courts in the country are functioning with just 18,000 judges. If the rates of increase in population and litigations are considered, the country will need 70,000 judges to deal with the backlog of over 3 crore cases, the CJI said. Of these, 2.7 crore case are pending in the lower courts, 30 lakh in the High Courts and around 60,000 in the Supreme Court. Last month, the CJI’s emotiol outburst in the presence of Prime Minister rendra Modi and State Chief Ministers that ‘justice continues to be an illusion’ for large sections of society, hit headlines around the country. He spoke of the tremendous stresses under which Indian judges are working, drawing parallels with the US Supreme Court which disposed off 81 cases last year compared to 2,600 cases by the Supreme Court of India. The Prime Minister then promised the CJI to address the issue of appointing judges in sufficient numbers, but this is a call the Judiciary must take jointly with the government in the coming days.
Around 5,000 sanctioned posts of judges in various courts are yet to be filled, so increasing the number of judges is another matter altogether. The collegium has reportedly put forward only 170 mes for 462 vacancies in High Courts presently; the government has been blamed for not accepting the mes expeditiously. On another occasion, the CJI attributed the delay in appointing judges to the long tussle over the tiol Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). However, the government seems to be set on another collision course with the collegium this time. In the latest development, the government’s draft memorandum of procedure (MoP) on judicial appointments and transfers is facing objections from judges over a clause that arms the government with veto power over any recommendation made by SC and HC collegiums, on the ground of ‘tiol security’. So the Executive vs Judiciary tussle is far from being over, with obvious repercussions on judicial appointments. Providing greater fincial autonomy to the Judiciary and strengthening justice delivery infrastructure is also not likely anytime soon, despite calls to raise allocations towards this end from the current measly 0.2-0.4 percent of the Union budget. It has been pointed out that even if the 4,432 sanctioned vacant posts of judges in lower courts are filled, there will not be enough courtrooms to seat them — for as of now, nearly 4,000 required courtrooms are yet to be built. The current judges-to-population ratio in India has been estimated at 17 judges for every 10 lakh citizens, while the Law Commission had recommended 107 judges. This can be compared to 151 judges in the US and 170 judges in Chi for each 10 lakh of population. Is it at all surprising that judges in India are among the most stressed out vis-à-vis their counterparts in most other countries, developed or developing? However, while there is no gainsaying the fact that the country needs at least a six-fold increase in the number of judges to deliver justice effectively, other reform measures have to be taken up urgently as well. A better mechanism to find right candidates in adequate numbers, ensuring total transparency in appointing judges, speeding up the court process, limiting appeals, weeding out frivolous litigation, cutting down the number of court holidays and actively promoting altertive dispute resolution mechanisms are all necessary for an all-round attack on the court backlog problem.