The Supreme Court lashed out at the government on Friday for allegedly stalling high court judges’ appointment and threatened to pass orders to clear the “logjam”, potentially triggering the latest episode in a string of clashes between the executive and judiciary.
Chief Justice of India TS Thakur read out a list of 75 names sent to the Centre for appointment as HC judges since February but lamented that there had been no progress.
“The Centre is attempting to bring the judiciary to a grinding halt by not appointing high court judges,” Thakur told attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, who promised to get back on the status of the list by September 13.
The court asked the government to send back the names in case of a problem but to not hold up the appointments.
“If this logjam goes on, we’ll be forced to judicially interfere with the government and ask for every file sent to you by the collegium.”
The strongly worded comments came roughly four months after the CJI broke down and criticised successive governments for not increasing the number of judges to a number sufficient to deal with millions of pending cases.
India’s judicial system is crippled by a shortage of judges and cases often take several decades to reach a verdict, especially in the lower courts.
India’s 24 high courts have nearly four million cases pending before them while another 30 million cases clog trial courts. But clearing this backlog is considered virtually impossible with the current strength of judges –in the high courts, 434 posts out a sanctioned strength of 1,056 remain vacant.
Even in India’s top court that was originally set up in 1951 to oversee 1,215 cases by eight judges, now 31 judges have to decide on a staggering 60,000 cases annually. The CJI has said in the past that the country needed to double the number of judges from its current strength of 21,000.
But the proposal of passing orders to clear the backlog might spark a face-off between the government and the judiciary. In the past, senior ministers have asked the SC to draw a “lakshman rekha” to not intrude into the executive’s jurisdiction. The comments had come after the apex court came down heavily on the Centre and state governments for not responding adequately to drought conditions.
In the past, a government attempt to set up a national judicial appointments commission to appoint judges was quashed by the top court, which said the independence of the judiciary would be compromised by a body that was proposed to have ministers on it.