Chief Justice Thakur makes an emotional plea for more judges

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New Delhi: Chief justice of India T.S. Thakur on Sunday sought urgent action to appoint more judges to resolve millions of pending cases across the country and inspire confidence among foreign investors that the government is trying to attract.

Thakur broke down and asked for justice to litigants and judges while addressing a joint conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in attendance.

The chief justice, known to be tough on judicial pendency, exhorted the legislature to “rise to the occasion” for the development of the country and stressed that the entire burden of pending cases cannot be shifted to the judiciary.

“We want people to come and Make in India, we want people to come and invest in India. But those who we are inviting are also concerned about ability of judicial system in the country to deal with the cases and disputes that may arise out of such investments,” Thakur said in an emotional speech.

“Therefore, it is not only in name of the poor litigant, but also in the name of development of this country, its progress, that I beseech you to rise to the occasion.”

When judges come from abroad and watch the Indian judicial system, they are amazed how judges in India work under such stressful conditions, the chief justice said.

A judge in India on an average handles 2,600 cases a year compared with 81 cases on an average that nine judges in the US Supreme Court handles every year, Thakur said.

“I somehow feel that if nothing else has worked till now in terms of improving conditions of the judiciary, an emotional appeal may work,” said Thakur at the end of his speech.

Pointing out that the Law Commission had suggested in 1987 that there should be 50 judges per million people to address rising litigation, Thakur observed that the recommendation has not been implemented.

Pendency has plagued the Indian judicial system for years. In high courts, around 3.86 million are pending, while the number is around 30 million across lower courts. India also has one of the poorest judge-to-population ratios across the world.

According to estimates, there are just 13-15 judges per million people in the country.

Prime Minister Modi, who was listening to the emotional speech, said he would try to resolve the issues and invited the chief justice along with some of his colleagues for discussions with the government.

“I can understand the pain (of CJI) if what was discussed in 1987 (is still not there) in 2016. There must have been some reasons,” Modi said, adding that “if Thakur sahab is comfortable and there are no constitutional limitations”, he would want the government and the CJI’s team to sit together, discuss and find solutions to the problems.

“I am not one of those who would just listen and go. I will take it seriously and try to find solutions,” Modi added.

In a lighter vein, Modi recalled that during his stint as chief minister, he had remarked in one such meeting about extending court hours and shortening vacations and that later, the judges had complained about it.

In reply, Thakur referred to justice J.S. Khehar, slated to be the next CJI, that he spent his vacation last year writing a judgement. “We are not vacationing in Manali or trekking during court vacation. These holidays are needed to retain sanity, such is the nature of work as the judge of the top court.”

Although the apex court is disposing cases at a faster rate, a staggering 59,468 cases are pending before the Supreme Court as of 19 February. A total of 4,207,903 cases—3,116,492 of which are civil cases and 1,037,465 criminal—are pending before 24 high courts as of 31 December 2014. Out of these, 777,630 or about 18.48% are pending for over 10 years or more.

The district courts fare worse on pendency with 26,488,405 cases pending as of 31 December 2014. Out of this, over 68.91% or 18,254,124 are criminal in nature.

In March, the ministry of law and justice listed increasing number of state and central legislations, accumulation of first appeals, continuation of ordinary civil jurisdiction in some of the high courts, vacancies of judges, appeals against orders of quasi-judicial forums going to high courts, number of revisions/appeals, frequent adjournments, indiscriminate use of writ jurisdiction, lack of adequate arrangement to monitor, track and bunch cases for hearing as reasons for pendency.

Of all reasons, judicial pendency stands out. The apex court is itself running short of its approved strength by six judges. According to the ministry, as of 29 February, 464 vacancies of judges exist in various high courts. Just the Allahabad high court has to fill up 88 judge vacancies to reach its full strength.

The chief justice has said on numerous occasions that reducing judicial pendency is his top priority. Thakur also said that since he took office as the chief justice on 2 December last year, 17,482 cases were filed, out of which 16,474 cases were disposed.

The Supreme Court collegium is back to making these appointments after the Constitution Amendment Act, which introduced a six-member panel called the National Judicial Appointments Commission, was struck down in October last year.

Around 170 names have been recommended by the collegium, which the central government is yet to clear.