Breaking down several times in his half-hour speech addressed directly at Prime Minister Narendra Modi present on the dais at the Annual Chief Ministers and Chief Justices Conference on Sunday, Chief Justice of India, Tirath Singh Thakur, launched a scathing attack on government inaction, squarely blaming the Centre for stalling appointment of judges to the High Courts. He also blamed the Centre of doing nothing to increase the number of courts and judges in the country, thus denying the poor man and under trial prisoners their due of justice.
The Chief Justice asked what the point of ‘Make in India’ was and inviting foreign direct investments when investors are increasingly doubtful about the timely delivery of justice.
“Therefore not only in the name of the litigant… the poor litigant (he pauses as his voice trembles with emotion) languishing in jail but also in the name of the country and progress, I beseech you to realise that it is not enough to criticise the judiciary… you cannot shift the entire burden to the judiciary,” Chief Justice Thakur said in an unprecedented criticism of the government.
“I feel that if nothing else has helped justice, an emotional appeal might,” Chief Justice Thakur told an audience of his fellow Supreme Court judges, High Court Chief Justices, former Chief Justices of India, senior Union Law and Justice Ministry officials, dignitaries and the media at Vigyan Bhawan as the Prime Minister and Union Law Minister D.V. Sadananda Gowda watched on.
He said there are 434 judicial vacancies in the High Courts waiting to be filled up as of date.
“This is thanks to the long time the NJAC case took to be decided,” Chief Justice Thakur said, referring to the year-long litigation in the Supreme Court over the government’s attempt to replace the Supreme Court Collegium with the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). Judges’ appointments to the High Courts and the Supreme Court had remained frozen as the court battle had raged on.
“Once the litigation was over, a concerned collegium cleared pending proposals for judicial appointments in six weeks. We had already appointed 54 High Court judges whose cases were pending with us before the NJAC case. Fifty per cent of the proposals were turned down by us as we did not want the slightest blemish on the name of the judiciary. But 169 proposals are still pending with the government till now… ” Chief Justice Thakur said.
“Now how long will you take to process these proposals? … How long? When jails are overflowing… In Allahabad High Court, 10 lakh cases are pending.”
‘Ratio of no. of judges to the population grossly inadequate’
Chief Justice Thakur, in his scathing criticism of the government’s inaction, said the Centre chose not to lift a finger to help reduce the “impossible burden” judges carry and aid the cause of justice delivery despite a Law Commission report in 1987 warning that the country is slipping into a crisis where the ratio of the number of judges to the population is grossly inadequate.
He read out a letter from his predecessor, Chief Justice of India (now retired) Altamas Kabir, who had written to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on February 21, 2013, requesting the latter to take steps to increase judges’ strength over a period of five years to at least 50 judges per million.
Chief Justice Thakur then read out Mr. Singh’s reply, in which the latter acknowledges that judges’ numbers have to be increased manifold, but ends his letter by passing the blame to the State governments for not taking the “initiative.”
“So in 2013, the Government of India commits itself to increase the number of judges, but nothing is done. The Centre says the States should take the lead and the States say Centre should take the lead. As this tug-of-war goes on, judges’ strength remains the same and litigants remain in jail,” Chief Justice Thakur slammed the government.
He said that at least five crore cases are filed every year and judges dispose of only two crore.
“Nobody talks about our disposal rates… there is a limit to what a judge can do, to his or her performance capacity. In the United Supreme Court, nine judges sit together as a Bench and decide only 81 cases in a year. Judges come from abroad and are amazed by what an Indian judge does in a year in a stress-filled atmosphere… Yet we struggle on as the people have faith because we are doing our best,” Chief Justice Thakur said.
He referred to how the Law Commission in 1987 had recommended 40,000 judges in the country to tide over the problem of pendency of that time. Its report had said that there were only 10 judges to a million population when there should be at least 50 judges per 10 lakh population.
Noting that population has increased by over 25 crore since 1987, Chief Justice Thakur said the only solution to this “extraordinary situation” was to bring back proven judges from retirement in a bid to dispose of cases which are more than five years old.
He noted how setting up of Commercial Courts was close to Prime Minister Modi's heart but questioned its viability. He said merely naming an existing court as Commercial Court would only further delay the process of justice for the ordinary litigant.
"Speeches have been made in the past, debates have been held in the Parliament, but I think nothing is moving," Chief Justice Thakur said.
PM makes an unscheduled speech
The Chief Justice’s remarks and appeal that it is “time to protect the judiciary, which is one of the pillars of our Constitution” saw Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliver an unscheduled speech immediately after the former took his seat on the dais.
Mr. Modi recounted how as Gujarat Chief Minister he had attended the same conference several times and heard speeches. He said how speakers in the conference had elbowed aside his suggestion for judges to reduce their annual holidays to help reduce pendency.
The Prime Minister said judges and the government should sit together and work for a more efficient tomorrow rather than dwell in the past and what was said in 1987.
He said the ordinary citizen has full faith in the judiciary and the government would not let that faith in the judges falter. He blamed the flood of archaic laws that fill up the statute books, faulty or vague drafting of laws and their multiple interpretations by various courts as reasons for prolonged litigation.
“Some of these laws date back to 1880s. Somebody wants to do something, he is shown a law drafted in the last century and told to stop doing it,” Mr. Modi said.