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Govt confronts empty judge posts: Nearly 6,000 in districts, 400 in high courts

As the Centre formulates a plan to deal with a huge number of vacancies in the judiciary, it must fight against years of bureaucratic stalling and infighting.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2017 22:06 IST
Jatin Gandhi
Jatin Gandhi
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
NDA,Narendra Modi,TS Thakur
The relationship between the Centre and the judiciary was particularly strained while TS Thakur, pictured with Narendra Modi, was Chief Justice. He retired in January.(Sushil Kumar / HT Photo)

Even though the Narendra Modi government has substantially increased the number of posts for judges in the high courts and judicial officers in the districts, law ministry data for the last three years shows, burgeoning vacancies remain an impediment in reducing pendency of cases in the courts.

The number of unfulfilled judicial posts has skyrocketed. Nearly 40% of judges are missing from the 24 high courts and 26% of judges are missing from the 707 districts.

As a result, almost 3 crore cases are pending in Indian courts. Of these, 40 lakhs are in high courts.

The government says it is ready to make a plan to solve the problem. “Over the next few months, we will put in place a road map to tackle pendency of cases,” said junior law minister PP Chaudhary. “This road map is being worked out with the judiciary.”

But another senior official of the law ministry said on the condition of anonymity that the gap between the sanctioned number of judges and the functioning strength of the judiciary is too wide for a solution to come anytime soon.

In the last three years, the Modi government increased the number of posts for high court judges from 906 to 1079. As of June 26, a whopping 408 of these posts lay empty. “A gap of around 10 per cent can be expected, but this is abnormally high,” said a source involved with the appointment process.

Among judicial officers, the NDA raised the sanctioned number from 19,518 to 22,258. The number of vacant posts is now 5,875, with nearly half of the new posts still unoccupied.

Collegiums at the level of state courts and the Supreme Court, composed of five top judges each, jointly appoint new members. The high court collegiums send recommendations to the Supreme Court collegium, which then approves them and sends them to the government, which issues the appointment orders. The role of the government is only administrative.

The process has been jammed for a number of reasons. According to sources in the law ministry, high court collegiums have not even made a recommendation for 275 vacancies. Forty-three candidates approved by the Supreme Court were questioned by the Centre twice, leading to a delay of over a year. This stalling on high court appointment orders has been going on since long before the NDA, though it has worsened during their time in power. New guidelines on the appointment system are being debated by each side, further contributing to the deadlock.

The district judges, meanwhile, are appointed solely by high courts, with state governments having varying levels of responsibility. Chaudhary emphasised that the Centre is not to blame for the many vacancies among judicial officers. “The government has nothing to do with filling these posts,” he said. “These appointments are directly under the high courts. We are hoping these will be filled soon.”

Last October, then Chief Justice of India TS Thakur told Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi that the government was not keeping its promise of making high court appointments on priority. “You may now as well close court rooms down and lock justice out,” the CJI said in open court on October 28. His words exemplified the unease between the judiciary and the executive.

First Published: Jun 26, 2017 16:36 IST