|The Madras High Court, which has the second largest caseload and the biggest influx of fresh cases, has the least number of judges. If the situation goes unheeded, it will not be able to cope with the load.|
The Chief Justice of India, speaking on the occasion of the Law Day (November 26, the anniversary of adopting the Constitution) said that the judges’ strength had to be considerably increased to cope with the needs and demands. On the same day, the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court pointed out that his Court’s request for more judges had gone unheeded by State and Central Governments.
A close look at the facts show that the Madras High Court does seem to have received a stepmotherly treatment. A comparison between that court and the High Courts at Allahabad, Bombay and Calcutta is revealing. All these are Chartered High Courts, meaning that they were created during British rule and had jurisdiction over the major provinces in the different parts of the country. Even after Independence and the creation of High Courts in the new States, these continue to be the major ones in terms of the strength of judges and caseloads.
The Supreme Court of India brings out a quarterly newsletter called Court News, which can be relied upon to give us accurate figures regarding the courts. Its latest report covers the period April to June 2007. For ease of reading, the numbers regarding cases have been reduced to the nearest thousand. Both civil and criminal cases are taken into account. The Allahabad High Court had a total pendency of 8,28,000 cases as of June 30, 2007, Madras was second at 4,24,000, Bombay ranked third with 3,69,000 and Calcutta had 2,78,000 cases. We can also take a look at the number of cases instituted in the courts. During this three-month period, Madras took in 59,000 cases, Allahabad 51,000; Bombay admitted 31,000 and Calcutta 22,000.
It seems logical that the judge strength in these courts would match these figures but unfortunately it does not. Recently, Allahabad, which originally had 100 judges, has been sanctioned 60 new posts of High Court judges, bringing its total to 160. The Bombay High Court got 9 more, bringing its tally to 75. Calcutta has 50. Madras had 49, and remains at 49. Its request for 20 more judges lies unattended. In fact, a comparative benchmarking with its counterparts would entitle the Madras High Court to have at least 80 judges.
Whether one takes pendency or fresh institution of cases, absolute numbers or percentages, the Madras High Court is disadvantaged. The Court with the second largest caseload and the biggest influx of fresh cases has the least number of judges. Every Court in this country needs more judges, and the purpose of this piece is not that other courts do not deserve to have increases in judge strength. Instead, it is to underscore the position in a major High Court, which seems to have been overlooked for no appreciable reason. If the situation goes unheeded, this High Court will not be able to cope with the load. There is only so much overload that an institution can take. The Madras High Court is an innovator in alternative dispute resolution methods — a forerunner with its Lok Adalats and a pioneer with its court-annexed Mediation Centre. These measures, however, cannot take much of the load off the docket; the large mass of litigation needs the judge and his courtroom.
No court can long function with avalanches of incoming cases and an ever-increasing backlog. As the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court pointed out, his Court began the year 2005 with a backlog of 3 lakhs of cases; on January 1, 2007 it carried more than 4 lakhs of cases, an increase of a hundred thousand cases in just two years.
The importance of a well staffed and well functioning judiciary cannot be overstated. Disputes between parties, companies and other bodies need to be sorted out soon. Delay results in continuing injustice and frustration. It also leads to avoiding courts of law and choosing violent methods to settle matters. In the wider area of governance through the rule of law, the court has made impressive strides in protecting the rights of the citizens in several areas of public welfare. A dysfunctional court simply means that rights do not get translated into effective remedy. This spells immeasurable harm to the state, the litigants and the people at large. It is also unfair to lawyers who have to answer to their clients for prolonged delays. And it is unfair to our judges and court officials.
The Madras High Court’s rate of disposal of cases is appreciably higher than the national average; indeed, amongst the courts mentioned here it is by far the highest. But no group of judges, however hardworking or efficient, can withstand the pressure of numbers that the court faces.
This situation must cause us to rethink the present system under which courts are dependent on the executive for funds for their infrastructure and functioning. Governments have various priorities, and can always plead shortage of funds (which seem ready at hand for populist causes). Politicians and bureaucrats are often at the receiving end of court orders and censures, and can hardly be expected to be generous when sanctioning budgets for the judiciary. Isn’t it rather strange that ministerial berths can be created at the drop of a hat, but judicial posts are being sanctioned, and filled, slowly? We need a different, more independent method of evaluation of judicial needs and speedier responses. Perhaps a National Judicial Commission, whose birth is long awaited, can perform that role.
In the instant case however, even the excuse of shortage of funds is not available. The Madras High Court has enough space for several more courts; all that is needed is to pay incremental judicial and staff salaries. It is simply a question of lack of interest and action manifested by the executive branch. Tamil Nadu should rightly take pride in its High Court, and should strive to protect it. It is for the State Government to now take the initiative and for the Centre to follow through. One hopes that they will respond.
(The writer is a Senior Advocate, Madras High Court.)
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