The paucity of judges in courts at all levels is one of the main causes for delays in the disposal of cases and the consequent backlog. In proportion to its population, India has among the least number of judges compared to the other major democracies of the world. The law commission, in its 120th report on manpower planning way back in 1987, put the judge-population ratio at 10.5 judges per million as against 50.09 in the United Kingdom, 57.07 in Australia, 75.02 in Canada and 107 in the United States of America.
Based on population growth and litigation rate, it had recommended raising the ratio to 50 judges per million within five years and thence to 107 judges per million by 2000. But neither these recommendations nor repeated reminders by successive chief justices of the Supreme Court could move the executive into making the required appointments.
The situation has become even worse because judicial vacancies are not promptly filled. For instance, out of a total sanctioned strength of 647 judges in the country’s 21 high courts, over 150 posts are lying vacant.
The situation is not helped by the practice of diverting judges to head probe-panels. In a recent ruling, the apex court warned that this should be done only if it was unavoidable in the national interest. Since there were around 35 lakh cases pending in high courts alone, it observed that preventing a sitting judge from performing his regular duties for long added to the judicial burden and slowed down the process of justice.
Nor is the situation in the lower judiciary any better. State governments have utterly neglected to introduce any reforms in them. There are only 13,000 judges as against a need for 75,000. Of these, as many as 1,874 posts are vacant. Thus 15 per cent of the courts, where citizens seek justice at the first instance, are headless.
Taking a serious view of this, the Supreme Court, ruling in All India Judges Association versus Union of India and Others, said that there should be at the very least a 10 per cent increase in the number of judges every year, as recommended by the law commission. The court set the deadline of March 31, 2003, for the appointment of sufficient judges.
It has also suggested that in the next three years, about 38,000 posts of judicial officers be created. An annual investment of Rs 127 crore would be required for this purpose. The court has asked the Centre to impress upon the states the need to increase the number of judges to fill the mounting vacancies.
The Centre has already taken some steps to comply with the apex court directives. It has asked the states to come forward with proposals to share the expenditure under a Centrally-sponsored scheme.
As a result of the shortage of staff, judges have been forced to work till late in the afternoon. According to reports, civil cases dating back to the mid-Eighties and criminal appeals against acquittals, more than a decade old, are pending in the high courts.
However, unless the judiciary is given financial autonomy, these problems are likely to persist. It goes without saying that creation of new posts of judges, more courts and necessary infrastructure need a lot of money.
The judiciary has to plead with the law ministry each time it needs funds. At present, hardly 0.2 per cent of the gross national product is spent on the judiciary. Ironically, half the revenues of a state government is realized through court fees and fines. In countries like the UK, the US and Japan, it is between 12 to 15 per cent of the total revenues.
It is time the political leadership understood that without a well-oiled justice delivery system, civil society itself is threatened. The government, being a major litigant, should not think of financial constraints in this matter. The states, where the problem of judicial backlog is more acute, too must set up fast-track courts for a speedy trial of old cases, particularly criminal ones.