Pendency of Cases and Rising Vacancies in the Judiciary – Explained, Pointwise

Introduction

Recently the Supreme Court asked the reason from the government for delaying the process of appointment of judges. The SC also highlighted that the government has not cleared the 55 recommendations made by the Collegium for judicial appointments to High Courts. 

The total sanctioned strength in the 25 High Courts is 1,080. However, the present working strength is 661 with 419 vacancies as of March 1,2021. The SC highlighted this as one of the reasons for the pendency of cases in the Judiciary. The pendency of cases in the Judiciary is a long pending issue.

Although the credibility of the judiciary is not a cause of concern, it is the pendency that is creating a major issue. It can have grave consequences such as denial of justice, prison overload etc. Thereby it demands urgent attention. 

Status of pendency of cases in the judiciary

  • From 2006-2019, an overall increase of 22% (64 lakh cases) was seen in the pendency of cases across all courts.
  • As of August 2019, there are over 3.5 crore cases pending across the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the subordinate courts. Amongst this, 87.3% of cases are in subordinate courts, 12.5% in High Courts and 0.2% in Supreme Court.
Few Important articles
  • Article 124(2) of the Indian Constitution provides that the Judges of the Supreme Court are appointed by the President. He/she should consult such a number of the Judges of the Supreme Court and of the High Courts in the States as he/she may deem necessary for the purpose.
  • Article 224A – The Chief Justice of a High Court can request a former high court judge to act as an ad hoc judge. He/she can do this with the previous consent of the President.
Causes for Pendency of cases
  1. Increase in the number of cases: An improvement in literacy levels, population growth and formulation of citizen-friendly tools like PIL have resulted in a huge influx of cases in courts. 
  2. Rising Vacancies: The courts are working below their sanctioned strength. As of 2017, High Courts have 403 vacancies out of sanctioned strength of 1,079 judges. But still, there are no filling of vacancies. Similarly, subordinate courts have 5,676 vacancies against a sanctioned strength of 22,704 judges. The delay in appointments is increasing vacancies.
  3. Rigid Procedural Requirements: A lot of paperwork needs to be done on every case which sometimes creates unnecessary delays. 
    • For instance, Vishnu Tiwari was recently acquitted of a false rape charge by Allahabad high court. His appeal was pending before the Allahabad High Court for 16 years. The reasons behind this were missing documents or documents in the wrong format for listing the case.
  4. Poor Conduct of Lawyers: They are sometimes found indulging in collusive corruption especially at subordinate levels in order to drag the case. Moreover, the lawyers also demand frequent adjournments for not valid reasons.
  5. Inefficiencies by Police Personnel: They are sometimes seen complacent in filing charge sheets and conducting speedy investigation which creates a delay in delivering timely judgement. 
  6. Law school focus on developing lawyers not focus on building future members of the Judiciary.
Impacts of Pendency of cases
  1. Firstly, the burden on Judges: Rising pendency creates an excess burden on judges. Judges have sometimes seen hearing more than 100 cases in a day. This reduces the average time devoted to a case on a particular day. 
  2. Secondly, overcrowding of Prisons: Pendency enhances the number of undertrials in the prisons which eventually leads to overcrowding. According to the NCRB data, In 2019 there were 4.78lakh prisoners. Out of which 69.05 % were undertrials.
  3. Thirdly, undermines Right to life: In Hussainara Khatoon v. Home Secretary, State of Bihar case, 1979 the SC held that the “right to a speedy trial” is a fundamental right implicit under Article 21. But pendency of cases is a clear violation of the Judgement itself. 
  4. Fourthly, harassment of people: The pendency causes harassment of the accused and victim. As they need to go through significant financial, physical and mental stress for years due to the pendency. For instance, in the recent example of  Vishnu Tiwari acquittal case, He spent 20 years in prison before this acquittal.
  5. Fifthly, undermines Judicial Credibility: The faith and trust of the common man in the judicial setup are also lost if he/she didn’t receive timely justice. It is perceived that judges are indulged in some kind of favouritism towards one of the parties and are deliberately delaying the process.
  6. Finally, unsatisfactory Disposal rate: The disposal rate(number of cases disposed of) has stayed between 55 -59% in the Supreme Court, 28% in the High Courts, and 40% in the subordinate courts. 
Suggestions to reduce Pendency of cases
  1. Firstly, the rise in vacancies can be duly addressed with timely appointments. This would require developing a consensus over a memorandum of procedure between the executive and judiciary.
    • It is an agreement between the judiciary and the government. It contains a set of guidelines for making appointments to the higher judiciary.
    • The memorandum of procedure should be based on four criteria
      1. Transparency in the Judicial appointments,
      2. Eligibility criteria for judicial appointments,
      3. A permanent secretariat to assist the collegium
      4. A mechanism for complaints against candidates.
  2. Secondly, the Supreme court has recommended that retired high court judges having domain expertise should be placed back as Ad Hoc judges. This will fast track the disposal of cases. 
  3. Thirdly, the slow disposal rate can be improved by augmenting the quality of judges. For this, the government can set up All India Judicial Services(AIJS).
    • It is a proposed cadre of judicial officers at the lower levels (below High Courts). They would be recruited through an open competitive national level exam conducted on the lines of the Civil Services Exam.
  4. Fourthly, an integrated digital system is required in the judiciary to streamline the process. This digital system will allow smooth interaction between various institutions through a digital platform. It will normalize the format and content of data across all the systems. 
  5. Fifthly, the media as the 4th pillar of democracy should do periodic and constructive reporting on the pendency of cases. This will have a dual benefit.
    1. Placing better accountability on judges
    2. Bringing the pendency to the public domain.
  6. And lastly, alternative Dispute Resolution mechanisms like Arbitration, Conciliation, Lok Adalats etc. should be promoted by judges. Further, legal services authorities, such as, NALSA, SALSA, DALSA and TALSA, can generate awareness.
Conclusion

The right to fair and speedy trial must be upheld in all circumstances as it is an important component of dignified life under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Further, the pendency of cases also depends on other reforms like Prison reforms, police reforms etc. The government has to ensure those reforms as well. In conclusion, we must remember that Justice Delayed is Justice Denied.

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