The Supreme Court’s case load is set to increase as it is unlikely to get new judges till some of the over 400 vacancies in the 24 high courts are filled.
The top court has 25 judges, against a sanctioned strength of 31, to deal with over 60,000 pending cases. The last judge to be elevated to its ranks was justice AK Roy, way back in February 2015. Four judges are due for retirement by December-end.
But there will be no fresh appointment before May, sources privy to the process told HT. With summer vacations starting mid-May and going on for most of June, it may get pushed back even further.
The SC collegium — a panel of five senior judges responsible for appointments to the top court and high courts — has put on hold the elevation of at least five high court chief justices.
This, sources said, is primarily because elevating them would “disturb” the collegiums in their respective high courts, affecting appointments and disposal of cases there.
The high courts are already struggling with a backlog of 40 lakh cases.
“It was felt the appointment process for high courts would get delayed if the present chief justices are elevated. A new head (transferred from a different high court) takes time to settle down before short-listing candidates,” the sources said.
“Also, it’s difficult to find suitable candidates to fill 400 vacancies.”
The SC collegium headed by Chief Justice TS Thakur is, therefore, keen on dealing with the high court vacancies before tacking its own, even though this means an increase in its workload.
The high court chief justices being considered for appointment to the top court are Ashok Bhushan (Kerala), Manjula Chellur (Calcutta), Sanjay Kishan Kaul (Madras), Dhananjaya Chandrachud (Allahabad) and AM Khanwilkar (Madhya Pradesh).
Shortage of judges has been a perennial problem in India. But it was compounded after a law setting up a National Judicial Appointments Commission — which gave the government a say in judicial appointments and replaced the collegium system — was challenged before the Supreme Court in January 2015. Except for justice Roy’s elevation, no appointment took place while the matter was in court.
In October, the top court finally struck down the NJAC as unconstitutional, saying it violated judicial independence by allowing executive interference in the appointment of judges. Since the beginning of this year, the collegium has cleared few names for appointment to the high courts and ordered the transfer of some.