Overburdened and Understaffed Judiciary

While addressing the annual Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Ministers, Chief Justice Thakur made an emotional appeal to raise the number of judges in the presence of Prime Minster Narendra Modi, law Minister DV Sadananda Gowda and a large number of judges. He criticized the inability of successive governments in raising the number of judges to an extent reasonable enough for dealing with over three crore pending cases.

What is the present scenario?
  • When the Supreme Court began functioning in 1950, it had eight judges to handle 1,215 cases. But today, it has today only 31 judges to handle over 60,000 cases.
  • 68 lakh cases lie pending in 24 high courts.
  • Roughly three crore cases are pending in trial courts across the country.
  • 434 posts against the sanctioned strength of 1,056 are vacant in high courts.
  • Against a requirement of about 50,000 judges, the judicial strength of the country is only 18,000.
What were the observations made by the CJI?
  • The CJI requested to clear the proposals to increase the judicial strength in high courts to the sanctioned strength of 1,056 on a war footing.
  • Pointing out that the Indian judiciary clears two crore cases every year, he highlighted the inaction of the government to the 120th Law Commission report (1987) and its recommendation to increase judge-population ratio from 10.5 to 50 judges per one million people.
  • He was not only drawing attention to delays on the part of the executive in clearing appointments to the higher judiciary, but was also equally upset at the absence of any significant initiative to increase the strength of the subordinate judiciary.
  • He also empathized with the poor litigants and undertrial prisoners, who suffer the most because of judicial delay.
  • He said the entire blame cannot be shifted onto the judges. He said the performance of the Indian judges was way too better than the judges of other countries. He cited the example of the US in which the entire Supreme Court- nine judges sitting together decided only 81 cases in a year, as opposed to an Indian judge (munsif/Supreme Court judge) deciding an whopping 2,600 cases a year.
What are the main problems confronting the judiciary?

The twin problems that confront the Indian judiciary are: mounting arrears and chronic shortage of judicial resources. This problem, however, is not new, and has been in existence for some years now. The blame game of the centre and states also add to the woes. The Centre says it’s for the states to increase the judges’ strength, and states for their part argue that the Centre is not providing sufficient funds. While this tug of war goes on, the hope of finding a solution to this problem may be elusive. Also, the Supreme Court’s action of striking down both the constitutional amendment and legislation to establish National Judicial Appointments Commission has delayed some appointments.

What is the Way forward?

It is estimated that the modern society would ideally require 50 judges per million populations. The government and the judiciary should collaborate to find practical solutions like appointing more judges, including retired judges as ad hoc judicial officers, increasing the retirement age, and deploying judicial resources efficiently etc.

The examples followed in the countries like United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia can be taken in to account. They all have maintained a judge-population ratio of 107, 75, 50 and 41 judges per million people respectively from the 1970s and 1980s.

All the above suggestions require infusion of manpower and financial resources and the strong will of the central and state governments. However, the Law Commission, in its 245th report pointed to the impracticability of using the number of judges per million populations (the official figure for India in 2013 was 16.8) as a criterion to assess the required judicial strength. It instead had advocated a ‘rate of disposal’ method. By this method, the number of judges required at each level to dispose of a particular number of cases is computed based on analysis. Whatever method the government plans to adopt, it should adopt on a war footing, as justice delayed is justice denied.