By Dhurjati Mukherjee
It is gratifying to note that in recent months the Centre has been quite prompt in clearing appointment of judges. Lately 34 judges were appointed in six High Courts with Allahabad High Court alone getting 28 judges. In fact, the NDA government may have set a record of sorts with the appointment of over 100 judges to High Courts so far compared to 117 in 2017. In contrast the number of judges appointed to High Courts every year since 1989 to 2014 hovered between 75 and 89.
The vacancies in these courts have now come down to around 25 per cent with a steady increment in the number of judges. However, it needs to be mentioned, the Supreme Court had in December 2015 asked the Centre to firm up a Memorandum of Procedure for streamlining appointment of judges, power for which was snatched from the Executive by the judiciary through two judgements of 1990s. However, till date the MoP has not yet been finalised despite three Chief Justices retiring since 2015, thus revealing half-heartedness of New Delhi.
More than a decade after the Supreme Court laid down guidelines in 2007 for making appointments in the lower judiciary within a set time frame, a similar issue is back before the highest court. The immediate context is shockingly the existence of more than 5000 vacancies in the subordinate courts. A Bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi recently pulled up the State governments and the administration of various High Courts across the country for the delay in filling these vacancies. Answers provided in the Rajya Sabha reveal that as on March 31, 2018, nearly a quarter of the total number of posts in the subordinate courts remained vacant!
The State-wise figures are quite alarming too, with Uttar Pradesh having a vacancy percentage of 42.18 and Bihar 37.23. Among the smaller States, Meghalaya has a vacancy level of 59.79 per cent. The reasons for this may be attributed to utter tardiness in the process of calling for applications, holding recruitment examinations and declaring the results, and, more significantly finding the funds to pay and accommodate the newly-appointed judges and magistrates. Besides, the State Public Service Commissions have not come forward to recruit the staff to assist these judges, while State governments build courts or identify space for these.
A study released last year by the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy revealed that the recruitment cycle in most States far exceeded the time limit prescribed by the Supreme Court. This time the limit is 153 days for a two-tier recruitment process and 273 days for a three-tier process. Most States took longer to appoint junior civil judges as well as district judges by direct recruitment as subordinate courts perform the most critical judicial functions
The Centre proposed an all-India examination to fill up over 23 per cent vacancies in posts of trial court judges. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court asked the High Courts to take prompt action in this regard to expedite filling up of 5133 vacant posts out of a total of over 22,000 judicial officers across India. CJI Gogoi’s priority to reduce pendency and cut down delay in dispensation of justice found expression in his recent video conference with Chief Justices and senior judges of High Courts when he had outlined that judges should not take leave or attend seminars and government functions on working days.
The apex court asked whether the infrastructure and manpower available in different States was adequate and if “all the posts that are borne in the cadre are to be filled up”. The meant the Supreme Court was asking the High Courts and the State governments to give a projection of the additional manpower and infrastructure required to tackle the huge pendency, so that a clear road-map could be drawn.
One may mention here that the apex court recently ticked off States such as Karnataka, West Bengal and Kerala for their poor infrastructure. Special mention may be made of the Court’s hard knock to Mamata Banerjee’s Bengal as it said:”When the need is for construction of 422 court halls and 630 residences for judicial officers, the State is moving at snail pace for 75 court halls and 39 residences”.
With over 45 lakh cases pending in the High Courts, it remains to be seen how much of the pendency will be tackled in the coming year. But while the Centre has shown promptness in appointments in the last two years and the present Chief Justice is very serious about the matter, the prospects seem encouraging if the vacancies in the lower courts are filled up within a reasonable span of time.
Meanwhile, seeking to arrest the trend of never-ending criminal trials of politicians, the apex court asked High Courts to allocate the pending 4122 criminal cases against them to adequate number of sessions and magisterial courts – in each of the 440 districts — for expeditious completion of trials. Records reveal that there are 990 cases pending against sitting and former MPs and MLAs across the country, with Odisha having 331 cases, Kerala (323 cases), Bihar (304 cases) and West Bengal (262 cases). Charges are yet to be framed in 1991 cases and 430 cases involving offences punishable with death/life sentence are pending against 180 sitting legislators and former legislators.
Thus, at this juncture there is need for all State governments and the Centre to provide all necessary facilities, including infrastructural support and personnel, to the judiciary. Personnel and infrastructure at the sub-divisional and district courts have to be provided to allow justice to be expedited and bring down the pendency of cases. This would help to percolate justice down to the grass-root level and help provide some succour to peoples who are entangled in lengthy legal cases.
It goes without saying that strengthening of the judiciary by providing better infrastructure and recruitment of personnel at all levels is imperative. This is all the more necessary as the judiciary undeniably has been playing a crucial role in attending to people’s problems and meting out social and economic justice, though it does take time. Nevertheless, the Indian judicial process has been playing a pivotal role in strengthening the democratic process and can be said to have been viewed by many of being the last solace of the citizens.—INFA