After a long break, the Supreme Court has resumed the publication of its journal, Court News, providing to the public “the activities and achievements of the Indian judiciary in general”. Like most news, what the straight-faced quarterly purveys is bad news. The old gripe, that judicial vacancies are not filled up, arrears are mounting at every rung of the judiciary and the ratio of judges to the bulging dockets is dismal, seem to have only got worse in some respects.
First, vacancies in courts. As on October last year, there were 279 vacancies in the 21 high courts in the country. The total sanctioned strength is 895. The Allahabad High Court, which should have 160 judges, is functioning with 69, less than half its strength. It needs 91 more. This is a chronic problem with that high court. The previous years also showed that the court was working with a truncated strength.
Other high courts also are not in a happy situation. Only the Himachal Pradesh High Court has its full quota of 11 judges. The Sikkim High Court has only one, though the full strength should be three. Fortunately, there are only a total of 60 cases, 30 new ones in one year, for the single judge to dispose of. The bad cases are: Gujarat with 20 vacancies in a total strength of 42; the Punjab and Haryana High Court with 20 out of the total of 68 and Kolkata with 17 out of 58 and Rajasthan with 13 out of 40.
Statistics for the district and subordinate courts are equally alarming. There are a staggering 3,634 vacancies out of a total 18,008 sanctioned strength. Gujarat needs 816 judges while it has only 863. Bihar requires 681 judges out of a total of 1,666. The working strength of Uttar Pradesh is 1,897, with 207 vacancies. West Bengal needs 146 judges. Those states and Union Territories that have their full quota are Arunachal Pradesh and Chandigarh.
The Supreme Court has 56,304 cases pending as on September last year. It claims that if connected matters are excluded, the pendency is only 32,423 matters. Out of the total, 19,968 cases are up to one year old. Therefore, the arrears are only of 36,336 matters, according to the court’s analysis.
The table for the 21 high court shows that there are 4,350,868 cases pending before them. They include 3,434,666 civil cases and 916,202 criminal cases. The bright side of the data is that some high courts have more disposals now than institution of new cases. This will lead to reducing the pendency of cases in the long run. Some of the high courts that show such negative growth are Patna (-3.80 per cent), Delhi (-1.78 per cent), Guwahati (-1.42 per cent), Gujarat (-0.76 per cent) and Chhattisgarh (-0.50 per cent). In the rest of the high courts, new cases outstrip disposal of old cases. Prominent among them are Karnataka (+5.06 per cent), Andhra Pradesh (+2.92 per cent), Madras (+ 2.37 per cent) and Sikkim (+12. 96 per cent).
It is again a mixed bag with subordinate courts in the states. There are a total of 27,670,417 cases pending in them, which include 7,834,130 civil cases and 19,836,287 criminal cases. Happily, some states have shown negative trend (faster disposals than the institution of new cases). Maharashtra, though it is 194 judges short, has shown a negative growth of 1.72 per cent, Delhi 5.60 per cent, Mizoram 14.54 per cent, Tamil Nadu 1.26 per cent and Chandigarh 2.68 per cent.
The total rise of pending cases in district and subordinate courts in the country is 0.44 per cent, which should be manageable in the next few years if sufficient infrastructure, personnel and funds are given to them. This is important as subordinate courts are where the citizens meet the judicial system in the first instance. Very few of them can afford to go up the legal ladder with appeals, as most of them would have exhausted their money, patience and much of their lives by then.
The higher the litigants go up, the more it becomes a gamble. At the apex, one will find what the legal profession calls “luxury litigation”. Expensive lawyers argue one case before attentive judges for weeks or months, lightening their heavy oratory with shaggy dog stories.
Sometimes issues not judicially manageable are taken up as a challenge, like the current effort of the five-judge Constitution Bench that wants to set guidelines for the conduct of the media — a field where even overbearing governments have hesitated to rush in. If the court succeeds in sanitising media reporting, newspapers that follow the guidelines will turn so insipid that they will fit in only in Mamata Banerjee’s list of approved periodicals for government libraries.