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Where are the judges? High courts remain understaffed with numerous vacancies

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:49 IST

Access to justice is a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. But latest numbers show that they have a rare chance of ever getting justice, thanks to the acute shortage of judges in India's high courts.

The numbers are startling. In the Supreme Court, the sanctioned strength of judges is 31% but there are only 28 judges at present.

All the appointments are stuck because of the impasse between the government and the judiciary over judicial appointments.

In the Allahabad High Court, one of the largest courts in India (by the number of judges), the Bench has only 82 judges - just two more than half the sanctioned strength of 160.

According to the latest data available with the Department of Justice, the appellate courts in North East have a single vacancy each. Data shows that one might be forgiven for wondering if the justice system is in tatters. The situation is similar in most other courts as well.

Department of Justice data

The number of vacancies in the appointment of judges has the potential to cause significant harm to the delivery of justice.

The lack of an adequate number of judges adversely affects the rate of disposal of cases. How many cases can a Judge hear on a single day? And under these circumstances, how can a judge deliver justice?

A June 2016 study released by Daksh India, a legal research think-tank, suggests that the quantum of vacancies in the higher judiciary (which includes the high courts) are not the real reasons behind the delivery of justice.

Therefore, comes the question of Article 224A of the Indian Constitution which permits the appointment of judges who are past the stipulated age and allows them to serve as temporary judges of both the Supreme Court and high courts.

In May this year, the Chief Justice of India, TS Thakur, didn't hesitate to shed tears over the government's Gordian Knot regarding the appointment of judges.

The Memorandum of Procedure for the appointment of judges of HCs and the SC- the CJI had taken strong exception to.

He primarily objected to the surveillance regimen the present political dispensation wishes to put into place while appointing judges.

The Supreme Court had left the entire matter of HC and SC judges by 'permitting ' it to prepare a Memorandum of Procedure for appointments, but now it finds itself on a backfoot due to this move.

The government and many other organisations have always claimed that judicial appointments are causing a positive effect on justice being delayed.

And it has taken a stance of launching a strict surveillance regime - a "rigorous" regime of vetting by the Intelligence Bureau - before confirming any permanent high court appointment.

Undoubtedly, appellate court judges have to make sure that they are above any consideration to get approved appointments.

But is that the real cause/reason?

For at the end of the day, "justice" isn't a numbers' game. It hinges upon the issue of sensitivity.

Justice delayed is justice denied, but, can "just" judges be considered expendable?

The question still goes unanswered, while people agonisingly try for justice.

Also read: Madras high court judge stays his own transfer

Also read: HC judge stays his own transfer, threatens to sue Supreme Court judges

Also read: Give judges a break. Let them have their vacations

First published: 8 August 2016, 10:29 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.