Last October, the Supreme Court, in a suo motu writ petition, directed all states to provide information regarding the process of appointments to the higher and lower judicial services. While taking stock of the numbers, it was revealed that 5,133 sanctioned posts in the subordinate judiciary were lying vacant.
On what can be perceived as pressure from the apex court, many states are scrambling to fill up vacancies within the time frame fixed by the Supreme Court in the Malik Mazhar Sultan case. About four-fifths of these posts are currently in different stages of recruitment, translating into about 4,000 judicial officers entering the cadre this year.
When an aspirant joins the subordinate judiciary in India, s/he commits themselves to a career on the bench. Anybody with a law degree can appear for the judicial service examinations, and if successful, become an entry-level judge, i.e. civil judge junior division. This means that a fresh law graduate with zero or limited exposure to courts can be on the bench.
However, a law degree does not equip a person with the adjudicatory or management skills such as appreciating evidence, writing judgments, courtroom and staff management, etc. To compensate for this lack of experience and to build judicial skills, 24 academies have been set up across states. However, in practice, most state judicial academies do not appear to be equipped to train judges with the required skills.
Curriculum and method of training
Knowledge of the law is overemphasised in the training process. Recruits are taught lessons on basic legal concepts like types of mortgages and the difference between a lease and a licence. They are already expected to know these by virtue of having a law degree and also having passed the judicial service examination. In effect, this constitutes the third reiteration of the same legal principles.
In effect, lessons in judicial skills like writing orders, judgements and managing courtrooms which should be the dominant constituents of training, take a backseat.
Additionally, awareness about social context and learning, such as local culture and practices prevalent among communities, socio-economic demographics of the relevant state and districts is another area that requires attention. Although snippets of these areas are present in the curricula of some of the state judicial academies, it is still largely overshadowed by lessons in legal knowledge.
Lessons on important aspects such as gender and social media sensitisation are absent from most judicial academy curricula. For example, judges need to know the basics of the sociology of gender and sexuality, how to appreciate evidence that could be WhatsApp screenshots, what are bot accounts, online abuse and trolling, how encryption works, etc.
All state judicial academies conduct their training process based on a problematic assumption – that there are no special skills required in providing training itself. Most of the trainers are sitting or retired judges who are arguably not equipped to impart training. Judges focus on legal provisions and procedures and are not trained to organise training, formulate courses or determine the flow of course sessions.
The method of training is largely class-lecture based discussions. It does not incorporate experiential learning techniques which have proven to be more effective in contexts of adult learning.
Without discounting the importance of experiences shared by sitting and retired judges, it needs to be recognised that training should be carried out by professionals who are trained in designing curricula and andragogy.
This could include professionals, academicians and judges who have undergone training for being trainers. Such training includes incorporating andragogical tools that involve more simulation exercises, group discussions, field visits and similar experiential learning techniques.
Non-consultative and not interdisciplinary
The entire process of devising the curriculum, deciding how classes must be taken, who are to be trained and when, is decided by the state judicial academies and respective high courts with little to almost no consultation from external stakeholders. This is not surprising given how opaque the judicial system is in India.
However, considering the fact that judges are expected to play the role of an umpire in any kind of dispute arising between two or more parties, it is important that their training process involve experts from different realms of humanities and social sciences.
This would be better understood if academies were aware of the level of success of the training that they impart. A formal impact assessment of an existing training program to assess its effectiveness is completely absent, which restricts the scope of any feedback and improvement.
An evaluation of the recruits after undergoing training is the least that could be done for overall assessment; even that is absent. According to RTI responses that we have received, there is no provision of a post-training evaluation of recruits in most states. Except in a few states like Telangana, there are no incentives for recruits to perform better at their training.
Although the power of designing and conducting judicial training is largely concentrated in the hands of the judiciary, the political executive has powers in terms of targeted funding and pro-actively supporting legislation for improving judicial training. None of the national political parties’ manifestos talk of judicial training, even in passing.
Any mention of judicial reforms is around cliches of vacancies, funds for court infrastructure and alternate modes of dispute resolution. In the absence of any political will and with no push from the higher judiciary, any holistic reform in this area seems like a distant reality.
Vagda Galhotra and Reshma Sekhar are fellows at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.