The pendency of over 3.1 crore cases in Indian courts, and its link with inadequate judicial strength—India has just 13 judges per million population as against the UK’s 100—is well known. Also well known is the fact that judicial appointments are far short of meeting existing vacancies; as of May 1, there were 413 vacancies at the Supreme Court and high courts, with eight high courts having acting chief justices. In the lower courts, there were nearly 6,000 vacancies in February. Compounding this, and worsening the pendency, is the colonial practice of court vacations. The Supreme Court would therefore do well to consider carefully a petition filed by Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay, a lawyer and political activist, reducing the length of summer/winter vacations when the courts shut down en masse; the vacation benches, hearing urgent matters during the period, hardly make a dent on pendency.
The petition also asks for a minimum of 225 working days a year, and for the courts to function six hours everyday. Given what this could do for reducing the backlog of cases, these proposals are worth considering. It is only after the Supreme Court Rules of 2013 came into effect that the period of summer vacation has come down to seven weeks from ten—the overall vacation period and court-mandated holidays are capped at 103 days a year, though these don’t include Sundays and public holidays such as Holi or Diwali. At the time the Rules were introduced, the Supreme Court was working 193 days a year—or just over half a year—high courts for 210 days and the lower courts for 245 days. In 2014, Chief Justice of India RM Lodha had written to the high courts, seeking their view on a ‘round the year’ functioning of courts. Justice Lodha had mooted abolishing the en masse vacations, and instead, advocated for having each judge indicate in advance when she/he wished to avail of the vacation. That the en masse vacation system continues—to the detriment of the delivery of timely justice—even after four years of Lodha’s proposal, should indicate the strong resistance to open-round-the-year courts from both, the bar and the bench.
Upadhyay writes in his petition that, at the current rate of disposal, the Judiciary will need “320 years to clear the backlog”. While improving judicial strength is a necessity—the 120th report of the Law Commission had talked of the need to bring this to 50 per million—for now, making courts function for more number of days in a year than at present, and for more number of hours every day, is a must. Upadhyay points out that the backlog violates the spirit of Article 14 (right to equality before law) and Article 21 of the Constitution (right to life and liberty). The judiciary must ensure that the minders of constitutionality don’t end up violating it.