A matter of great concern!

The numbers of vacancies in the Supreme Court and the high courts have been increasing. There are many possible causes for the vacancies but the collegium system is especially to blame. The number of pending cases, which is directly related to the judge-to-population ratio, is an important tool to understand the justice delivery system in a democracy. So, it becomes pertinent to analyse the current status of the vacancy in India’s higher judiciary, in general, and high courts, in particular.
More than five years after the Supreme Court struck down the National Judicial Appointments Commission to safeguard judicial independence, the collegium is struggling to fill judicial vacancies in the 25 high courts. A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde has frowned upon the government for delaying the process of clearing the names recommended by the collegium for appointment as high court judges. Terming it a ‘matter of great concern’, it has asked the Ministry of Law and Justice to spell out how much time it would take to process the recommendations.
As on January 1 this year, there were 668 judges against a sanctioned strength of 1,079 and 411 posts remained vacant. The situation doesn’t appear to have improved since January 2020 when judicial vacancies in high courts stood at 401. The Supreme Court has sought to put the blame on the government.  Ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, it has been alleged that the Centre has been obstructing the appointment of judges in the Supreme Court and high courts. Since 2014, it has been reported many times that the Modi government and the collegium were not on the same page over the appointment of judges. Such cases are often framed as the obstruction of the executive in judicial appointments, but many cases also arise due to the adverse report of intelligence departments.  More than 100 names sent to the Union Ministry of Law and Justice by various high courts to be forwarded to the Supreme Court collegium for approval are hanging fire, many of them for more than a year. There are 56.57 lakh cases pending in 25 high courts. Of this, 92,085 are more than 30 years old; 1,51,853 cases have been awaiting disposal for over 20 years.
The Department of Justice under the Ministry of Law and Justice releases monthly statistical data about the vacancies of judges in the Supreme Court and the high courts. But the judiciary can’t be absolved of its responsibility either. If there are 411 vacancies in high courts, why can’t an equal number of names be recommended in advance? It’s time to fix the lacunae in the judicial appointment system in the interest of justice.

- -Prabhakar Purandare

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