High courts functioning with 38% judges’ posts vacant, says Centre

Updated on Dec 11, 2019 07:30 AM IST

As of December 1, the 25 high courts in the country had 669 judges, as against a sanctioned strength of 1,079, with 410 posts lying vacant. Some of the high courts are functioning at less than 50% of their sanctioned strength.

The illuminated main building of Allahabad High Court. The court, with 60 vacancies, tops the chart of high courts with the maximum number of vacant judges’ posts.(PTI File)
The illuminated main building of Allahabad High Court. The court, with 60 vacancies, tops the chart of high courts with the maximum number of vacant judges’ posts.(PTI File)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

High courts in the country are functioning with only 62% of their sanctioned strength of judges, according to the latest figures released by the ministry of law and justice on Tuesday, illustrating the difficulties impeding the justice system and leading to a long backlog of cases.

As of December 1, the 25 high courts in the country had 669 judges, as against a sanctioned strength of 1,079, with 410 posts lying vacant. Some of the high courts are functioning at less than 50% of their sanctioned strength.

Out of the 410 vacancies, recommendations with respect to 213 vacancies are under process and with either with the central government or the Supreme Court collegium; recommendations are yet to be received from the high court collegium for 197 vacancies.

In 2019, only 65 judges had been appointed to high courts as of December 2, as against 115 in 2017 and 108 in 2018.

This fact was also noted by the Supreme Court while hearing a transfer petition filed by a company, PLR Projects, whose case was pending before the Orissa high court and could not be heard because of a strike by lawyers in the state. The company had approached the Supreme Court seeking a transfer of its case from the Orissa high court to any other high court.

While dealing with the issues concerning the strike by lawyers in Orissa, the court had chosen to look at the larger issue relating to vacancies in high courts and had entrusted Centre’s senior-most law officer, attorney general KK Venugopal, with the task of ensuring that such vacancies are quickly filled up.

When the matter was heard on Friday last week, a bench of justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph noted the burgeoning vacancies in high courts and said that efforts must be made to ensure that the appointments of judges take place within six months once they are cleared by the collegium and the central government.

“… in cases where the recommendations of the High Court collegium meets with the approval of the Supreme Court collegium and the Government, at least their appointments must take place within six months”, the order stated.

The court also asked the Centre to submit data on the 213 recommendations which are pending before the government or the collegium, including information on the date when the recommendation was made by the high court collegium, the date when the SC collegium cleared the names and the time taken by the law ministry to clear the names.

Currently, the Allahabad high court, with 60 vacancies, tops the chart as far as the number of vacancies is concerned. It is functioning at a strength of 100 while its sanctioned strength is 160.

Not far behind is the Calcutta high court, which with 32 vacancies is functioning with only 55% of its sanctioned strength of 72.

The Delhi high court with a sanctioned strength of 60 judges has 23 vacancies and is functioning with 37 judges.

The Bombay high court has 65 judges out of 94, with 29 vacancies. The Madras high court is relatively the better placed among the four metro high courts. It has a working strength of 54 out of the sanctioned strength of 75 judges with 21 vacancies – a working strength of more than 72%.

As far as the percentage of vacancies is concerned, the Andhra Pradesh high court fares worst. It has more than 59% of its posts lying vacant. Out of the sanctioned strength of 37, it has only 15 judges with the vacancy figure standing at 22.

Both the Rajasthan high court and the Punjab & Haryana high court have 29 vacancies each. This figure looks worse for Rajasthan since it has a sanctioned strength of 50 judges, a vacancy percentage of 58.

Punjab & Haryana high court also has 29 vacancies. It currently has 56 judges as against a sanctioned strength of 85.

Patna high court, with a sanctioned strength of 53, has 26 vacancies while the Gujarat high court with a sanctioned strength of 52, has 24 vacancies. The Madhya Pradesh high court has 22 vacancies.

The Sikkim high court is the only high court in the country functioning at its full strength of three judges with no vacancies.

“ West Bengal has one of the highest pendency figures in the country. Lack of judges to hear cases adds to the woes. Sadly, many of the cases are criminal appeals which take longer than ten years to get decided, which means many people remain undertrials for long, many times in jail. Thus, meaningful justice delivery is impeded. The bar in the state is reputed to be one of the best in the country, so it is only appropriate that appointments to the high court are sped up”, said Mahesh Menon, assistant professor at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata.

Does the absence of deadlines/ time limits in the memorandum of procedure (the document which governs the procedure to make appointments to high courts and the Supreme Court ) to process recommendations, delay appointments?

“Not necessarily. A lot depends on the person involved in the process. A person functioning in tune with the spirit of the provisions would do it within a reasonable time even if no time limit is set out. A person intending to stall and sabotage can delay despite deadlines. Various excuses can be manufactured to do it,” senior counsel Prashanto Sen.

“In these issues, a lot depends on the sensitivity of the stakeholders to convention and the spirit of the provisions”, Sen added.

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