Much as the Centre is to blame, the higher judiciary is also responsible for delayed judicial appointments that translate into pending cases.
Former CJI and current Rajya Sabha member Ranjan Gogoi’s recent comments on the efficacy of the court process might have sparked off a controversy—coming as they did from a former holder of the highest judicial office in the country—but the substance of the comments would hardly be shocking. Gogoi’s talk of a “ramshackled” judiciary and pendency of cases has imprints of the episode of Justice TS Thakur, the then sitting CJI, breaking down in front of the prime minister over the delays in judicial appointments—a key reason behind pendency of cases.
While Thakur had blamed the government at the time for delaying the clearing of collegium recommendations, the apex court late last month pulled up the Centre for “sitting on collegium recommendations for five months”, calling it a matter of “great concern”. Much as the Centre is to blame, the higher judiciary is also responsible for delayed judicial appointments that translate into pending cases.
The Indian Express recently reported that the Supreme Court collegium under CJI SA Bobde hasn’t yet made any recommendations for four existing vacancies in the apex court, while five posts will become vacant during the remainder of the year. Not just this, the high courts are 40% short of the sanctioned strength and the district courts—appointments to these are made on the basis of decision of the High Court collegia—are 20% short.
Last year, the attorney general pointed out to the SC that while the government took 127 days to run background checks on judges, the SC took 119 days on average to decide on appointments after receiving the recommendations of the various High Court collegia forwarded by the law ministry. No wonder, on February 1, there were over 66,000 matters pending at the apex court level whereas the HCs and the district courts were faced with pendency of 57 lakh and 3.8 crore cases, respectively.
To be sure, infrastructure and staff shortage are also significant problems. Court halls are already 14% short of the number required to serve the existing strength of the judiciary, and if the entire sanctioned strength for the judiciary were to be appointed, the country will need 3,343 more court halls. Non-judicial court staff in most states is more than 25% short of the sanctioned strength.
The government needs to quickly resolve the infrastructure and staffing bottlenecks apart from clearing collegium recommendations, and the higher judiciary needs to make the lower judiciary/high court appointments fast. It is not hard to imagine the turnaround in terms of cases disposed if the problem of judicial appointments is sorted out—Chhattisgarh doubled its clearance rate following a 2017 notification to dispose of all cases pending for over five years by November 2018 and the setting of timelines for case-disposal. If the state, or any other state, had all the judges it needed, case pendency could be brought down meaningfully, restoring the citizens’ faith in the court process.