Judicial Backlogs Can Become History

Shailesh Gandhi

1 April 2019 11:42 AM GMT

  • Judicial Backlogs Can Become History

    We have been hearing that the Indian Judiciary would need decades to clear its backlog.The judicial system has become irrelevant for the common citizens, and this is responsible for many ills plaguing our Nation, like disrespect for laws and corruption. The ease of doing business also suffers and the rule of law cannot really prevail. The poor and marginalized are hit most in this state...

    We have been hearing that the Indian Judiciary would need decades to clear its backlog.

    The judicial system has become irrelevant for the common citizens, and this is responsible for many ills plaguing our Nation, like disrespect for laws and corruption. The ease of doing business also suffers and the rule of law cannot really prevail. The poor and marginalized are hit most in this state of affairs. Supreme Court judge Justice A M Khanwilkar acknowledges that at least 90 percent people give up their claim to justice. He added that there was only 10 to 15 percent citizens who have access to the justice system in India.

    A common belief is that we should have three to four times the number of judges. Some people believe that this can change only if there are major judicial reforms, or judges do not give adjournments or forgo their vacations. Some advocate the drafting of better laws. These would require changing the attitudes of judges, lawyers and MPs and there is no sign of it happening. It would be very good if all this happens, but so far there is no sign of it. Former Chief Justice Thakur said that unless the sanctioned number of judges was increased by over three times,- 70000 judges,- justice could not be delivered. It appears to have been accepted that a judicial system which can deliver timebound justice is unlikely, and the fundamental right to Speedy Justice will be a mirage for India. It is a common argument that UN standards suggest 50 judges per million population, whereas India has less about 20. In 2017 if we assume a population of 1250 million the sanctioned judges were 19.1 judges per million.

    I decided to try and evaluate how many extra judges would be required to start reducing judicial backlogs. The 20th Law Commission in its report no. 245 submitted in July 2014, after examining the issue from different perspectives concluded that the 'Rate of Disposal' per judge per year is the right method for evaluating this. In simple terms it assumes that if 10 judges are disposing 10000 cases, 12 judges will dispose 12000 cases. This may not be exactly correct but is likely to be the correct position with a margin of error no more than 10%. I took the data reported by the Law Commission in its report no. 245, and did a proper analysis of its data for 2002 to 2012 of fourteen states for the subordinate courts it had taken. A careful analysis shows that if it had been ensured that all sanctioned positions of judges were filled there would have been no backlog by 2007
    [1]. This would mean the queue would disappear and it would have been possible to devote adequate time to all cases without having to wait. In most cases it may be possible to dispose cases in less than 3 to 6 months. In Australia over 70% of the cases in the Magistrate's courts are decided within 13 weeks. The Law Commission analysis assumed that the complete backlog must be finished in 3 years and did not take the vacant judicial positions into account. Hence it came to the erroneous conclusion that the strength of the judiciary needs to be doubled.

    I decided to take a look at this issue by analyzing the data given on the Supreme Court's website at http://www.supremecourt.gov.in/publication in Courtnews for a twelve year period from 2006 to 2017 (both years included)which has a quarterly report for all the courts.
    [2] This analysis has been done by adopting the same 'Rate of Disposal' method accepted by the Law Commission. The summary of this analysis is tabulated below[3]. This shows that the number of sanctioned judges is adequate and if all the sanctioned judges were appointed mounting pendency and huge delays would be history.

    The number of judges sanctioned in the three levels on 31 December 2017 was 31 in Supreme Court, 1079 in High Courts and 22704 in the Subordinate Courts.The actual number of judges appointed was 25, 676 and 17028 in the three levels. Thus the total number of sanctioned posts were 23814 whereas the working judges were only 17739! Filling about 6000 vacant positions can make the judicial system deliver efficiently. 

    Another way of looking at this data for the twelve year period from 2006 to 2017:

    Supreme Court

    High Courts

    Lower Courts


    Average in Lacs per year

    Pending cases 1 January 2006





    Average Percent vacancies




    Total Cases Instituted in 12 years






    Total cases Disposed






    Increase in pendency






    Missed disposal due to vacancies






    Balance Pending on 31 December 2017





    Balance Pending could have been





    The increase in pendency in twelve years was about 56 lac cases whereas the disposal missed due to not filling all sanctioned posts was nearly 661 lacs! The increase in cases each year is less than 2.5 % of the average number of cases instituted each year, whereas the average vacancy is about 21%!

    I also assumed that an average vacancy upto 5% would have to be accepted in view of the overall inefficiency. If there was no vacancy the three levels would have a no backlogs in 2014, 2012 and 2012 respectively. With 5% vacancy the backlogs would have been completely eliminated by 2017, 2014 and 2014.

    There can be no excuse for keeping judicial positions vacant while the nation suffers because of this neglect. The retirement date of judges is well known. It would be possible to factor in vacancies due to resignations, promotions and deaths by studying the past data. The increase of sanctioned positions can also be forecast early. The number of registered advocates is about 1.3 million and over 60 thousand graduates emerge each year from our law schools. Even if infrastructure is inadequate it would need to be augmented by only about 20%. Even if we assume that there would be a capital cost of setting up courtrooms this would not exceed about 3 crores per courthouse which would mean about 18000 crores only. This is a simple solution and can be implemented very easily. This does not assume any change in the way judges and lawyers function. It only assumes that the extra judges who fill the vacancies will also dispose matters at the same rate as those who are already in the system. While the sanctioned judicial positions are about 19.1 judges per million the actual working strength is only 13.9 judges per million population.

    Surely it can be ensured that this process can always be started six to twelve months earlier and the Collegium recommendations are sent to the government three months before the vacancy occurs. There should be a similar approach for subordinate judges, of ensuring that the selection process is finished in advance.

    For the sake of the nation all those responsible must ensure that all judicial appointments are made in a timely manner. An easy solution is available. This analysis suggests that if a simple process of estimating vacancies and ensuring zero vacancy is followed, the sanctioned strength is adequate to dispose the inflow of cases and some backlog. Even if we assume that there would be upto 5% vacancies, the backlogs would go down dramatically. If this simple solution is implemented the problem will move towards a resolution. This is a simple mechanical solution.

    If the queue of cases does not keep getting longer, most delays would be reduced considerably. If the queue is very small there is not much scope for delays. If a policy decision were taken to ensure zero vacancy in the judicial positions, it appears that the backlogs would become history and the fundamental right to speedy justice would be actually implemented in our courts. The policy decision could also be made a law with accountability fixed for who is responsible to ensure its implementation.

    Shailesh Gandhi is Former Central Information Commissioner.

    Acknowledgment: I have been given great help by my friend Arun Joshi in the calculations and analysis.

    Note: There are some differences in the closing balance of pending cases between my working and that of the website. I have taken the arithmetical balance whereas the balances in the website are not matching completely. There is a significant difference in the High Court balance and a small difference in the Subordinate Court's balance. However the overall results would not vary significantly.

    [1] 2 Delivery of Justice Law Commission data Sheet 1

    [2] 3 Delivery of justice Supreme Court data - Sheet 1 Supreme Court; 2 High Courts; 3 Subordinate Courts

    [3] 3 Delivery of Justice Supreme Court Data- sheet 4 Summary

    Author is a former Central Information Commissioner

    Views are personal only.

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