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Ex-CJI blames judge trips at govt expense for pile-up

New Delhi, Aug. 25: One reason India’s court cases are piling up is that some senior judges may be using too much of their time travelling or lecturing, former Chief Justice of India J.S. Verma has said.

“Judges should pay attention to their primary duties (of delivering justice),” Justice Verma, who was CJI from March 1997 to January 1998, told The Telegraph.

The interview with the former Chief Justice was held against the backdrop of the Prime Minister declaring a “war” against the backlog, saying the world was “surprised” and India “concerned” that the country had the largest case pile-up globally.

Justice Verma referred to how frequently some judges hit the road at government expense, to deliver lectures or attend workshops. He accused the executive of “colluding” in the practice by clearing these trips to try and gain “benefits” from the judges.

When a superior-court judge travels to another place, he said, a local judge has to be with him and look after him, which affects the junior judge’s work too.

“If the superior-court judges stop moving, the subordinate judges will attend to work. If superior-court judges are perpetually on the move, subordinate judges always have to be in attendance.”

Frequent travelling may leave a judge with little time for homework, such as reading up cases likely to come up before him the next day, the former CJI said. Such homework helps a judge understand lawyers’ arguments better and reduces the need for adjournments.

Justice Verma blamed the Supreme Court for the backlog, saying it had failed to exercise its “moral authority” over other courts. “Ten years ago, did anyone talk about the Supreme Court like now?”

He suggested the apex court should ensure that no judge misses a working day except under unavoidable circumstances such as illness. Normal court time could be extended by half an hour and judges should leave only after they have completed the day’s work.

He said such measures had helped him bring down the apex court’s backlog from 110,000 to 19,000 cases when he was CJI. If it could be done then, it can be done now when the backlog is 50,000 cases, he said. The key issue was transparency.

“Place the records relating to the work done by a judge in a year in the public domain — how many holidays he has taken, how many judgements he has delivered,” he said.

“Publish facts about non-utilisation of full court working hours, except for unavoidable reasons like illness, of every judge at every level. Also, the records of non-judicial activity at the cost of judicial activity on working days or otherwise.”

Resistance to transparency was an attempt to keep the public in the dark, he said. “If others have to publicly declare their assets, why not judges? I feel ashamed when an impression is created that the judiciary has something to hide,” he said, touching on a debate now raging. ( )

The former CJI said drastic measures such as curtailing judges’ vacations would not work, because vacations are when judges should write their judgments. “Vacations are not meant for tours and for going round the globe. Holidays could be used to finish pending work, update knowledge. The judge could always take two weeks off and work the other six weeks.”

Nor would increasing the judiciary’s numbers too fast do. “Would quality not be affected if you recruit more than 50 at one go?”

Instead, “able-bodied” retired judges should be drafted as ad-hoc judges to clear the backlog while the sitting judges deal only with current cases.

Justice Verma was scathing about the executive’s role in the backlog. “Unless there is complicity of the executive, either by inefficiency or deliberate inaction, this situation cannot continue. The executive thinks that by ingratiating the judges it can get benefits. It suits the executive to have convenient people as judges,” he said.

“How can judges travel without (executive) sanction? The government sanctions these tours and bears the expenses for it.”

But the government doesn’t spend on a washroom for a subordinate judge, he said.

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