The pendency of cases in India’s overburdened and understaffed judiciary is well documented. The emotional appeal made by > Chief Justice T.S. Thakur on Sunday in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has added a sense of poignancy and urgency to the issue. The numbers are startling: against a perceived requirement of about 50,000 judges, the country has a judicial strength of a mere 18,000, while more than three crore cases are pending in various courts. In the Supreme Court, the current pendency is 60,260 for a Bench consisting of 31 judges. As many as 434 posts of High Court judges are vacant, while a docket burden of 38.68 lakh cases is stretching available infrastructure and resources. The problem, however, is not new, and the current crisis has been bearing down on the judiciary for some years now. Occasional observations made by the superior judiciary on the alarming state of affairs, be it as part of court proceedings or at formal functions where >Law Ministers and judges congregate , elicit some sympathetic noises or ad hoc responses. But substantive and concrete measures to resolve the twin problems of mounting arrears and chronic shortage of judicial resources are not forthcoming. Thus, the sense of frustration palpable in the appeal by the Chief Justice is entirely understandable.
The litigation over the > National Judicial Appointments Commission, which ended with the Supreme Court striking down both a constitutional amendment and legislation to establish the body, may have delayed some appointments. But with no change envisaged in the memorandum of procedure for fresh appointments to the superior courts, neither the government nor the Collegium should be bogged down anymore by differences, if any, over individual recommendations. However, the Chief Justice was not merely drawing attention to delays on the part of the executive in clearing appointments to the higher judiciary; he was also hinting at the absence of any significant initiative to increase the strength of the subordinate judiciary and the lack of empathy for poor litigants and undertrial prisoners, who suffer the most because of judicial delay. The situation demands an ambitious infusion of manpower and financial resources, for which even State governments will have to contribute immensely. It is said that a modern society would ideally need 50 judges per million population. However, the Law Commission, in its 245th report two years ago, had pointed to the impracticability of using the number of judges per million population (the official figure for India in 2013 was 16.8) as a criterion to assess the required judicial strength. Instead, it had suggested a ‘rate of disposal’ method by which the number of judges required at each level to dispose of a particular number of cases could be computed based on analysis. The Centre and the judiciary should collaborate on finding practical solutions: appointing more judges, including retired judges as ad hoc judicial officers, based on periodic needs assessments, increasing their retirement age, and deploying judicial resources efficiently.