More women judges needed in judiciary
Former chief justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde and incumbent NV Ramana recently said that the nation may soon have its first woman CJI. This is a welcome step and has raised the larger issue of more representation of women in the judiciary.
The appointment of high court judges is made under Article 217 and those of the Supreme Court under Article 124 of the Constitution of India. These Articles do not provide any reservation for any caste, class or person, including women. But from time to time, the Government of India and the Supreme Court itself have been insisting on giving weightage and consideration to deserving candidates among women also, while making recommendations for the appointment as judges. In spite of that, the representation of women in higher judiciary is poor.
In the Supreme Court, right from 1950, of the total 247 judges appointed so far, there have been only eight women judges. In 1980, Justice M Fathima Beevi became the first woman judge to be appointed to the apex court, 40 years after its establishment. Today, of the 27 judges in the Supreme Court, there is only one woman judge, Justice Indira Banerjee, with a total of seven vacancies.
The situation is no better in the high courts. Of the total sanctioned strength of 1,079 high court judges, there are 426 vacancies with 653 sitting judges. Going by the figures available, at present, there are only 78 women judges in different courts, with 13 in the Madras high court, eight in the Bombay high court, seven in the Punjab and Haryana high court, six each in the Delhi and Karnataka high courts and five each in the Gujarat and Kerala high courts.
Interestingly, there is no woman judge in the Patna, Meghalaya, Manipur, Tripura and Uttarakhand high courts.
As far as the question of the CJI is concerned, going by the present incumbents, the position regarding the chief justices up to 2027 is clear. According to seniority, after CJI NV Ramana, Justice Uday Umesh Lalit is likely succeed him till November 8, 2022, Justice DY Chandrachud up to November 10, 2024, Justice Sanjiv Khanna up to May 13, 2025, Justice BR Gawai up to November 23, 2025, and Justice Surya Kant up to February 9, 2027. Therefore, at least in six years, there is no chance of any woman judge becoming the CJI.
Unless there are certain appointment of women judges made against the seven vacancies of the Supreme Court, who are supposed to retire after 2027, there may not be any women CJI even after that also.
Correct the patriarchal mindset
Unfortunately, no serious attempt has been made during the past 70 years to give adequate representation to women either in the high courts or in the Supreme Court. In India, women constitute 50% of the total population and a large number of women are available in the Bar and in the judicial services for elevation but, in spite of that, the number of women judges is small.
One can very well acknowledge the fact that India basically has been a male-dominated society and has not allowed women to play a role that they can play in different walks of life, including the judiciary. The Bill for giving 33% reservation to women in Parliament and state legislatives has not been passed till date, despite all major political parties publicly supporting it.
The need of the hour is to correct the patriarchal mindset in recommending and approving the names of those who are to be elevated as high court judges and come out with more representation to worthy women lawyers and district judges for elevation. Unless women are empowered, justice cannot be done to them.
It is high time that all those who matter in the appointment of judges to the high court and the Supreme Court, realise the need of giving adequate representation to women in the judiciary. In fact, the superior judiciary should also have horizontal reservation for women such as subordinate judiciary without diluting merit.
Moreover, simply appointing a woman CJI in itself may not make much difference unless we have sufficient number of women judges in different courts. As of today, there are a total of seven vacancies in the Supreme Court and 426 vacancies in the high courts. If we really want to give due representation to women in the judiciary, it is high time that while making appointments against these vacancies, reasonable and adequate representation is given to them.
Vacancies are an opportunity
The vacancies of about 426 judges out of 1,079 (42%) and seven out of 34 judges in the Supreme Court (20%) is high. But it gives an opportunity to make up for the deficiency in the matter of representation to women in higher judiciary. The cause of the first woman CJI, in the present scenario, cannot be achieved for six years. However, during this period an attempt can be, and should be, made to give due and adequate representation to women both in the high courts and in the Supreme Court. That will be a step in the right direction of removing gender discrimination, which ultimately may lead to more social and gender harmony in the judiciary. Any step in this direction will be a benchmark for society with many more young women students coming forward and opting for law as a profession.
The writer, a former Lok Sabha MP and an ex-member of the Law Commission, is additional solicitor general of India. Views expressed are personal