With Chief Justice TS Thakur making an emotional appeal to double the number of judges to handle an “avalanche” of backlogged cases, the focus is back on the long-standing issue of judicial delays.
Blaming successive governments for not increasing the number of judges to handle 30 million pending court cases, the CJI broke down on Sunday at a conference that was attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The reason for CJI Thakur’s near breakdown: The manpower and infrastructure for courts, particularly subordinate court, are far short of what is required. India currently has 21,000 judges even though the law commission, a government body, recommended almost three decades ago that at least 40,000 were needed.
Addressing the Annual Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Ministers, Justice Thakur said judges across the court system handled 2,600 cases each annually and together cleared two crore cases.
Indian courts are notorious for their slow pace in which hearings can go on for years, or even decades. More than 38 lakh cases are pending in 24 high courts and about 60,000 in the Supreme Court.
In 2010, Justice VV Rao of the Andhra Pradesh High Court had said it would take 320 years to clear the backlog 31.28 million cases pending in various courts.
On Sunday, CJI Thakur said the central and state governments were blaming each other for the mess, and unfairly putting the onus on the judiciary to clear the burgeoning backlog.
This is not the first time that a CJI has spoken about the government’s apathy towards the judiciary. “Governments think the judiciary is a non-productive organ of the state. They hardly spend on the judiciary...less than 0.5% of the budget is spent on the judiciary. Let’s hope the new government gives more attention to the judiciary,” then CJI RM Lodha had told HT in May 2014. “Barely 0.11% of the 2014-15 central budget of Rs 17.60 lakh crore is proposed to be spent on law and justice,” he had said.
The Indian judicial system is one of the largest in the world. But, according to a 2012 National Court Management Systems report, although the number of judges increased six-fold in the last three decades, the number of cases shot up 12-fold.
Even by conservative estimates, the number of cases reaching courts will touch 15 crore requiring at least 75,000 judges in the next three decades, the report said.
There are other factors also that contribute to the pile-up of cases. The infrastructure available for courts - particularly lower courts - is inadequate, besides serious shortage of judges. Many courts function from rented buildings, while nearly 7,000 proposals for building courthouses were still awaiting state governments’ clearance.
Despite the law commission, parliamentary standing committee and the Supreme Court saying that the judge-population ratio in India should have 50 judges per one million people, the ratio continues to be abysmally low at 13 judges per one million people.
“Nothing has moved” since 1987, when the law commission had recommended an increase in the number of judges from then 10 judges per 10 lakh people to 50, CJI Thakur said.
According to the panel’s 120th report submitted to the government in 1987, countries such as the US, England, Canada and Australia had way better judge-population ratios of 107, 50.9, 75.2 and 41.5 way back in the 1980s.
As a result of the poor judge-population ratio, even if judges work at a frantic pace in India, they may never be able to clear the backlog.
Modi told the conference that his government was ready to discuss the issues hounding the judiciary to find a way out. “Jab jaago tab savera (better late than never),” he said.