New Delhi: The Chief Justice of India, T. S. Thakur became emotional on April 24 in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, lamenting his government’s “inaction” in raising the number of judges from 21,000 to 40,000 to handle mounting cases, saying, “you cannot shift the entire burden on the judiciary”.
“Nothing moves”, an unusually emotional Thakur said, recalling a 1987 Law Commission recommendation to increase the number of judges per 10 lakh people from 10 to 50.
“Then comes inaction by the government as the increase (in the strength of judges) does not take place,” he said in a choked voice while addressing the inaugural session of the joint conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts here on Sunday.
“…And therefore, it is not only in the name of a litigant or people languishing in jails but also in the name of development of the country, its progress, that I beseech you to rise to the occasion and realise that it is not enough to criticise. You cannot shift the entire burden on the judiciary,” the CJI, who was seen wiping his eyes on three occasions, said as the prime minister heard him in rapt attention.
Modi, who was not scheduled to speak as per the programme circulated by the law ministry, said, “I can understand his (CJI’s) pain as a lot of time has lapsed since 1987. Whatever have been the compulsions, its better to be late than never. We will do better in the future. Let us see how to move forward by reducing the burden of the past,” he said.
He said if constitutional barriers do not create any problems, then top ministers and senior Supreme Court judges can sit together in a closed room to find a solution to the issue.
Modi also recalled that in one such conference he had attended as the Gujarat chief minister, he had flagged the issue of reducing vacation time in courts and holding morning and evening courts; but during the lunch break , he said, some judges had questioned his proposal.
Later, addressing a press conference on the day’s deliberations, the CJI admitted that being emotional is his “weakness”.
“One should not be emotional. Justice Kehar [who is likely to be the next CJI] is a strong man. He will not be emotional,” he said.
In his address, the chief justice said that following the Law Commission’s recommendation, the Supreme Court in 2002 had also supported increasing the strength of the judiciary. The parliamentary standing committee on law – then headed by Pranab Mukherjee – had also recommended taking the judges-to-people ratio from 10 per 10 lakh to 50.
The CJI also spoke of the “tug-of-war” that goes on between the Centre and the states over funding, infrastructure and other issues.
As of today, the judge to people ratio stands at 15 judges to 10 lakh people which is way less as compared to the US, Australia, the UK and Canada.
Referring to the pressures Indian judges face, Justice Thakur said that from a munsif to a Supreme Court judge, the average disposal in India is 2,600 cases per annum as compared to 81 cases per annum in the US.
“Old wine in a new bottle will not serve the purpose,” he said, adding that an “emotional appeal” made by him “may work” in getting the government take note of the problems being faced by the judiciary.
Giving out statistics, Justice Thakur said when the apex court came into being in 1950, it had a strength of 8 judges, including the CJI with 1,215 cases pending. Then, he said, the pendency was 100 cases per judge.
In 1960, the strength of the SC rose to 14 judges and the cases also increased to 3,247. In 1977, the strength was 18 and the cases were 14,501. By 2009, as is the case today, the strength of SC judges rose to 31 and the pending cases spiralled by 77,181.
“In 2014, the cases were 81,582 which were reduced to 60,260… On December 2 when I took over as CJI and now, 17,482 cases were filed out of which 16,474 cases were disposed,” he said.
Referring to the pendency of cases, he said the high courts have over 38 lakh cases to dispose and the number is increasing.
According to latest law ministry figures, the approved strength of the subordinate judiciary is 20,214 with 4,580 vacancies. The approved strength of the 24 high courts is 1,056 – where the vacancies are pegged at 458 as on March 1.
In the apex court, there are six vacancies against the sanctioned strength of 31 judges, including the CJI.
Justice Thakur also said the Supreme Court collegium will respond next week to the government on the revised memorandum of procedure – a document to guide appointment of judges to the apex court and the high courts.
He said the document, prepared by the government to enhance transparency in judicial appointments, will be sent back to the Centre next week with the comments of the SC collegium.
Thakur said external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, who headed the group of ministers which drafted the memorandum, had spoken with him on whether the collegium was ready with its response.
He said Swaraj was abroad and the SC judges were busy with their retreat at Bhopal and the chief minister-chief justices conference.
“Now she is back. We will meet her and give our comments,” he said addressing a press conference on the decisions taken at the conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts held here.
On whether the judiciary was ‘okay’ with the text of the memorandum, Justice Thakur said the core of the document, based on a Supreme Court judgment, will remain “unaltered” – that the collegium will make a recommendation.
“Things like the number of judgments a candidate has delivered are contributory in nature,” he said, adding that judiciary is ready for the new document. “We have no problems”.
A day before Holi, the file relating to the draft MoP was sent to the CJI.
The collegium consists of the CJI and four senior judges of the apex court. If the draft is ratified, it would be put in the public domain by the department of justice in the law ministry. If changes are suggested, then the ministry would have to redraft it.
The NDA government wants both the Central and state governments to have their say in recommending candidates for appointment to the higher judiciary.
While delivering its verdict striking down the proposed National Judicial Appointments Commission, the Supreme Court said it was willing to make the collegium system more transparent – and asked the government to rework the MoP in consultation with the states and high courts.
The CJI said the collegium has now cleared all proposals sent to it in six weeks. While 145 judges were either elevated as permanent judges in the high courts or were appointed as additional judges, 169 proposals were still pending with the government, he said.
He wondered why the government was delaying the appointment of judges when there was a huge backlog of cases.
Responding to a question on the delay in clearing names, Law Minister D V Sadananda Gowda said verification by the Intelligence Bureau takes time.
The CJI was of the view that IB should be asked to submit its report in a fixed timeframe. “The Director, IB should depute more men. The government is very resourceful. In fact, there is no system to track the recommendations made by the collegium. We should have a system to know where the recommendation is. We don’t know whether a secretary is sitting on it or it is with the PMO or the law ministry,” he said.
He said most of the appointments were not fresh in nature. Additional judges have been made permanent judges in most cases. Which means that no fresh appointments were made against vacancies.
“How much time does it require when there is an avalanche of cases,” he had said this morning in his address while referring to delays in appointing judges.
The CJI said 50% of the recommendations made by the high courts were rejected by the collegium as “we have raised the bar”.
Referring to suggestions, including from the Prime Minister, that the judiciary should cut down on its vacations, he said, “We don’t go to Manali. Judges of constitutional benches write their orders… When one side is ready, the other is not. Ask the Bar if they are ready,” he said.