Even before Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia takes over as the country’s new chief justice next week, he has a crowded calendar. There is the issue of the overwhelming, and rapidly increasing, backlog of cases. In the Supreme Court, it rose from 49,819 last year to 55,971 now; in the high courts, it has risen from 38,34,224 to 40,49,649; and from 264,22,920 to 272,38,782 in the case of district and subordinate courts. While a large part of this is due to the fact that India has a lot less judges than other countries have (India has roughly 12 judges per million population versus 110 in the US), even the sanctioned posts are not being filled. There are four vacancies in the Supreme Court itself which is around 13 per cent of its sanctioned strength; 265 vacancies in the high courts add up to 30 per cent of the bench strength, and in courts like Allahabad, there are more vacant benches than manned ones (82 versus 78); and 2,800 vacancies in the subordinate courts add up to around a sixth of the total bench strength. Given that as far back as 1988, the Law Commission had recommended the judge-to-population ratio be raised to 50 in five years and to 107 by 2000, it is obvious Justice Kapadia has a huge HR issue that needs dealing with. With a very large proportion of cases concerning two arms of the government litigating, Justice Kapadia also needs to work on convincing the government to take remedial action on this front.
Equally important, Justice Kapadia will have to deal with the perception that judges run a closed shop with little or no transparency. After the furore over posting information about the assets of judges on the Net, the Supreme Court doesn’t want to subject itself to the discipline of the Right to Information (RTI) Act — indeed, the apex court has filed an appeal to itself against a Delhi High Court judgment saying the office of the Chief Justice of India came under the ambit of the RTI. Once the higher judiciary is covered by the RTI, apart from questions of assets, there could be questions on how judicial appointments are made, on how the judiciary has reacted to cases of corruption of brother judges and the like — so the court’s decision to stave off the RTI creates an unfavourable perception in the public eye. Related to this is the issue of Justice Dinakaran and the Supreme Court’s reluctance to take serious action against him — at one point, the proposal was to transfer him to the Sikkim High Court till lawyers there began protesting. Impeachment proceedings against Justice Soumitra Sen are in progress, and the Rajya Sabha panel has just issued him a charge sheet. Few expect Justice Kapadia to be able to make a serious dent in the issue of backlogs and vacancies since he has a tenure of under two-and-a-half years, but how he deals with the issue of the public perception of judges will be closely watched.