Nearly 2.6 crore cases are pending in the district and subordinate courts across the country and there are only 16,874 judges to try them — that’s around 1,540 cases per judge.
More alarming is the number of vacancies in these courts. Vacancies are another problem, with 5,580 or 25% of posts lying empty against the sanctioned strength of 22,454 judges. This, despite reform efforts in the judicial sector focusing on filling up vacancies in a timely manner over the years.
A first-of-its-kind study by Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy has found that most States and their High Courts do not adhere to the schedule laid down by the Supreme Court for filling up judicial vacancies. The report ranks States based on average time taken to complete one recruitment cycle and the percentage of vacancies potentially filled. It collated data for a 10-year period, from 2007 to 2017.
According to the report, Delhi is nearly at the bottom in the list of States that overshot the stipulated time frame for recruitment of judges in subordinate courts.
“However, preliminary reading of available evidence suggests that the recruitment process does not take place in a regular and timely manner in a number of States. Even if the States complete a recruitment cycle, many are unable to fill the total number of advertised vacancies,” the report said.
The lower judiciary broadly comprises three cadres of judges: district judges, senior civil judges and civil judges (junior division). These posts jointly include judges having civil as well as criminal jurisdiction. The exact designation of posts under each of these cadres differs from State to State in hierarchy and nomenclature.
In its judgment in the All India Judges’ Association case, the Supreme Court had outlined three ways of appointing district judges.
The first method is via promotion based on merit-cum-seniority from civil judges (senior division) — 65% of the total strength of district judges must be recruited in this manner.
The second method is via promotion based strictly on merit through competitive exams held among civil judges (senior division) with a minimum of five-year service. This accounts for 10% of the sanctioned strength of district judges.
The final method for selection entails direct recruitment from advocates at the Bar, with a minimum of seven years’ practice. The quota for this is 25%.
Civil judges junior (direct recruitment) appointments ranking : Of 20 States for which data was available, the top-ranked States are Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Nagaland and Punjab. The lowest-ranked States include Jammu & Kashmir, and Delhi.
As per the Supreme Court, a two-tier process comprising a written exam and an interview should take 153 days, whereas a three-tier examination procedure comprising a preliminary exam, a written test and an interview should take 273 days.
The Vidhi survey found that one recruitment cycle for the post of civil judges junior (direct recruitment) took 326.27 days on an average over the past 10 years among States that followed a three-tier recruitment cycle.
Puducherry and Jammu & Kashmir, which follow a two-tier system of recruitment, took an average of 99 and 742 days respectively to complete one recruitment cycle. Of 20 States, 11 took over 273 days on an average to complete their recruitment cycle. These States are Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Tripura, Maharashtra, Assam, Uttarakhand, Kerala, Manipur and Delhi. Jammu & Kashmir took 742 days against the stipulated time of 153 days to complete the two-tier recruitment cycle.
Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh, and Puducherry are the only States to complete the recruitment cycle under 100 days, whereas Jammu & Kashmir, and Delhi took 742 and 798 days respectively.
The Vidhi report revealed that delay in cases of Jammu & Kashmir and Delhi can be explained by litigations challenging their recruitment process. Case in point, the 2014 Delhi Judicial Services (Mains) Exam was challenged before the Supreme Court. Although the examination was not stayed, the publication of the final select list was made contingent on orders passed by the Supreme Court. This delayed the entire recruitment cycle.
“…Failure to fill vacancies could be due to numerous reasons, some of which lie outside the control of the High Courts/ Public Service Commissions conducting the examination,” the report said.
Similarly, though Sikkim has filled 300% of its vacancies it does not necessarily mean better performance than Kerala or Punjab, which managed to fill 131% and 234% of vacancies respectively.
Among States that follow the two-tier system of recruitment, Tamil Nadu and Tripura manage to complete the recruitment cycle under 153 days, with Tamil Nadu running a complete cycle in just 96 days.
However, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and West Bengal took a little over 153 days to complete their cycles. Arunachal Pradesh and Kerala emerged as outliers in this case since they took 192 and 466 days respectively.
Here, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Karnataka and Nagaland completed their cycle under 273 days, while Mizoram, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Delhi and Bihar took more than 273 days to do the same. Bihar emerged as the worst-performing State in this regard as it took nearly 604 days to conclude the examination process.
According to the report, systemic defects in the appointment process most certainly contributed to vacancies in the lower judiciary. “Exams are not conducted frequently enough to fill vacancies as they arise. Even when they are, the High Courts are often unable to find enough meritorious candidates to fill the vacancies advertised. Unclear recruitment procedures and difficulties in coordination between the High Courts and the State Public Service Commission also frequently give rise to disputes and litigation surrounding recruitment, further stalling the process.”
Earlier this year, the Supreme Court had initiated its own public interest case to look into the viability of a centralised selection mechanism for appointment of judicial officers in subordinate judiciary. The case is still pending.
Last year, the Supreme Court’s Centre for Research and Planning came up with an extensive research on the manpower requirement of district courts across the country. It came to the conclusion that the existing strength of judges in the lower judiciary was wholly inadequate for the kind of workload that is constantly flowing in for disposal by the courts.
Over the next three years, the subordinate judiciary will require an additional 14,597 judicial officers and sanctioned judge strength of 35,155 to cater to the existing problem, the report added.
As per the 2015 figures, the Centre for Research and Planning had said that the subordinate judiciary works under severe deficiency of 5,018 courtrooms. It also pointed to the shortage of residential accommodation for the subordinate judiciary — that is short of 8,538 quarters or over 40% of sanctioned strength of judicial officers. According to the report, 41,775 staff positions for subordinate courts were lying vacant, further affecting the functioning of courts.
“These indicators have adverse consequences on effectiveness of courts. A judge trying cases for days on end in makeshift rooms cannot be expected to turn out optimal results. Equally, shortage of secretarial and support staff tells on availability of court services, so vital to ensure timeliness,” the report noted.
The earliest attempt to address the issue of backlog was in the Rankin Committee Report, 1924-2012. It concluded that quality of judicial administration can be improved only when the problem of arrears is tackled.
The 120th Law Commission of India report on Manpower Planning in Judiciary, 1987, contained significant suggestions for reducing pendency and, for the first time, suggested a judge strength fixation formula. It suggested that the judge-population ratio in India be increased immediately from the then ratio of 10 judges to 50 judges per million.
The report said since the demographic factor is the predominant consideration while delimiting legislative boundaries, demographics should be the basis for fixing judge strength.
The United States judiciary at the State trial courts-level alone had a judge-population ratio of approximately 102 per million in 2011. Australia with a population of 22.68 million in 2012 commanded a judge-population ratio of approximately 48 judges per million.
As on January 1, 2015, the States employed services of 51,523 officers of the rank of inspector and above. In contrast, the sanctioned strength of judicial officers across the country was 20,174.
The projected population of India as on January 1, 2015, was 1,238.88 million, which showed that there were close to 41.58 police officers of inspector and above rank for every million citizens, while judicial officers for the same population stood at 16.
The Centre for Research and Planning report noted that access to justice is meaningful when each citizen literally has “access” to courts.
The data revealed that on a geographical average, one judge is available at a distance of 157 sq. kilometres. Policing on the other hand, is better placed with one police officer every 61 sq. km.
Analysis of last year’s National Crime Records Bureau data revealed that the present strength of judicial officers is only able to complete trial in approximately 13% of cases brought for trial under the Indian Penal Code during a year.
The ratio of cases brought for trial to the number of cases in which trial is completed stands close to 7% for the past five years. This clearly shows that the existing strength of judicial officers needs to be enhanced by at least seven times so that trial is completed within one year
The Centre for Research and Planning report stresses that mere case pendency is not to be seen as a bane since it is the inevitable concomitant of growth: economic, educational and social, an indicia of prosperity and awareness. The report, however, stated that the existence of a large number of pending cases hampers the ability of judges to deal with fresh cases.