How Court Services across India can go a long way in bridging the talent gap and filling vacancies in District Courts
The foundation of the Indian judicial system rests on the district and subordinate judicial system which runs the bulk of our civil and criminal justice system.
File image of CJI NV Ramana. PTI
Recently, the Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, stressed the need to fill vacancies at all levels of the judiciary on a war footing. This is one of many unequivocal positions taken by the CJI since its elevation, to improve the judicial infrastructure of the country. For some time now, the Indian judicial system has faced two distinct but interrelated problems. The first is a massive backlog of pending cases, and the second is a large number of vacancies at all levels of the Indian judicial system.
To put things into perspective, as of July 2021, India-wide vacancies in district and subordinate courts stood at just over 5,100 vacancies (approximately 20% of the sanctioned workforce) . It’s not new. Not so long ago, in 2017, the situation reached an all-time high with nearly 6,000 judicial positions in district and subordinate courts remaining vacant. In this regard, one of the long standing issues is the establishment of All-India Judicial Services (AIJS).
Importance of subordinate courts: bulwark of Indian justice
The importance of the subordinate judiciary cannot be stressed enough. Subordinate courts often serve as the first port of call for litigants. The importance is amply emphasized in Article 22 of the Constitution according to which the magistrate’s order is a sine qua non for detention beyond 24 hours. In addition, cases of various nature are dealt with in the first instance by the district courts to which access is much better since they are located in each district. Since not all plaintiffs have the socio-economic means to apply to the High Court in the State Capital or the Supreme Court in Delhi, a speedy resolution of this hand (mandate) issue -work becomes imperative.
Lower courts also suffer not only from the speed of delivery of justice but also from the quality of justice. Often, higher courts sit on appeal to these subordinate and district courts. These higher courts tend to adjudicate the case anew because they are sometimes skeptical about the quality of justice rendered.
A case of high judicial vacancy
The persistence of insufficient appointments is an “access to justice” problem. In 1987, the Law Commission of India recommended increasing the judge-to-population ratio to 50 judges per 10 lakh population. However, even after two decades in 2018, India had only 19 judges for every 10 lakh people. More recently, in 2008, the Supreme Court of Malik Mazhar Sultan v UP Civil Service Commission noted that an insufficient number of judges translates into a higher workload per judge, leading to delays and denial of prompt justice. This view was confirmed in the 2014 report of the Law Commission of India which recommended recruiting more judges to settle cases quickly. However, these have not materialized on the ground and there is a large judicial vacuum.
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An important aspect of this that often goes unaddressed is the conduct of State Civil Service Commissions (State CSPs) that conduct subordinate judicial reviews. These exams are held once every 2-3 years or sometimes even later, and therefore vacancies keep increasing. Moreover, given the uncertainty of the judicial service exams, the bright minds of the prestigious NLUs (National Law Universities) do not choose the judicial service as a career choice and instead opt for other career avenues.
Implement centralized judicial recruitments nationwide
Sections 233 and 234 of the Constitution deal with the appointment of the subordinate judiciary which is within the domain of the respective state governments and respective high courts. Vacancies in the courts continue to arise periodically due to the elevation, retirement or resignation of judges. A systemic approach is therefore necessary for any meaningful judicial reform. To this end, the central government is considering the establishment of an All India Judicial Service (AIJS) for the subordinate judiciary. The proposal is not new. The idea of a centralized judicial service was first raised by the 14th Law Commission in its “Report on the reforms of the judicial administration”.
Subsequently, in 1976, the 42nd Constitutional Amendment amended Section 312(1), empowering Parliament to legislate for the establishment of one or more All-India Services, including an AIJS, common to the Union and the States . In 1986, detailed guidelines for the establishment of AIJS were established by the Law Commission in its 116th Report. In 1992, the Supreme Court of Indian Association of Judges v Indian Union instructed the Center to set up an AIJS. This decision is essential today because it will contribute to fill the vacancies of judicial officers without compromising the quality of judges.
Justice Ramana had concluded that he wanted to ensure that there were no vacancies in the high courts, the Supreme Court or the district judiciary. The CJI has shone a spotlight on these long-standing issues. AIJS would go a long way in filling the talent gap and filling vacancies in the District Judiciary. This is all the more relevant as the foundation of our judicial system rests on the district and subordinate courts which administer the bulk of our civil and criminal justice system.
The author is a final year law student at the National Law School, Indian University of Bangalore. The opinions expressed are personal.