The contrast between the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court or high court and the median earning of an advocate practising in their courtrooms is stark. This disparity becomes even more troublesome when one considers that lawyers invited for elevation to the Bench are meant to be the most competent and are therefore also the best compensated. The earnings of several top lawyers in Delhi and Mumbai rival the profit figures of some medium-sized companies. Worryingly, if our government continues to keep judicial salaries artificially suppressed, there is a reasonable fear that the best minds from the Bar might be reluctant to make the enormous financial sacrifice. The chief justice of the US Supreme Court has openly acknowledged that inadequate judicial pay increases might eventually lead to a “constitutional-crisis”.
This disparity appears to be rooted in tradition. Historically, pleaders were tasked with assisting judges in their pursuit of the truth. The adversarial judicial system encouraged competition among members of the Bar, the best of whom were invited to become judges. The only difference in those days was that salaries were on par with what leading lawyers earned. Now, even junior-level corporate executives and first-year associates at law firms earn higher salaries than our judges. The question is, how much longer can we smother our judges with the hollow idealism of selfless service at the cost of their dignity?
If India wants an independent and capable judiciary, we must pay for it. Union law minister Sadananda Gowda must address this issue by collecting empirical data to analyse judicial wage compensation. There are over 350 vacancies across high courts. In the subordinate judiciary, over 4,000 judges are needed (2014 figures). This explains, at least to an extent, the issue of delay that plagues our system. Gowda blames the collegium system for these vacancies, instead of acknowledging the truth that low salaries were deterring talented lawyers. Though impossible to quantify, the cost to society attributable to low-quality judges is immense. Low-pay may also lead to instances of rent-seeking and posturing for post-retirement appointments, simply because their savings and pension are insufficient.
Judicial salaries in India are among the lowest in all the common-law countries. Even Pakistan pays its Supreme Court judges a respectable 1 crore Pakistani rupees, in addition to housing and healthcare benefits. The lord chief justice of England and Wales is paid an equivalent of Rs 2.5 crore, whereas the United States is not far behind at Rs 1.6 crore (annually). These figures are somewhat comparable to salaries of partners at law firms in London and New York.
One must also recognise that the Indian judiciary is routinely trusted with deciding commercial disputes running into billions of dollars. Foreign corporations swear by India as a reliable investment destination owing largely to their faith in our apex court’s integrity. The Vodafone decision was one such instance. Even in terms of case-disposal, the 30-odd judges decided 73,000 cases out of roughly 77,000 cases instituted before it in 2011. This works out to an impressive disposal rate of over 90%. On the other hand, the high courts have posted mediocre figures, having disposed of only 18 lakh cases, or 60% of their cases. As you may have guessed, vacancies are directly proportional to increased pendency.
By paying our Supreme Court judges a paltry Rs 90,000 a month, Parliament is humiliating the entire legal system. Judicial pay must not be evaluated in isolation by reducing it simply to a cost-benefit analysis. It is an argument about dignity and respect, which will ultimately affect the interests of the people.
Jai Dehadrai is a judicial law clerk to a judge of the Supreme Court. The views expressed by the author are personal.