Continuing what will be a year of quick personnel changes for the higher judiciary, a new chief justice of India, R M Lodha, has taken office. Justice Lodha will have only a five-month tenure. It will be difficult for him to introduce any far-reaching reform in this period. His initial speech after being sworn in must have been written with that in mind; it did contain a stout defence of the collegium system for the appointment of judges. It is, however, unfortunate that in this speech there was no real mention of the biggest problem that India's judicial system faces: the enormous delays. The numbers are staggering, but bear repeating. Here is one: there are 32 million cases pending in India's courts. If every case involves the fates of at least three people, that means almost 100 million people are waiting for justice - a number that would make up the world's 13th largest country.
The higher judiciary must bear some of the responsibility for this. It is not as if the executive is starving the judiciary of funds or capacity. The government recently, for example, suggested an increase in the number of high court judges by 25 per cent in every bench. Yet one problem is that there are still vacancies even in the existing benches. At the high court level, there are about 32 per cent fewer judges than there are posts; at the district level, the shortfall is 21 per cent. True, some state governments have not increased their outlay so that the number of district courts could be doubled. But even in places with sufficient funds, such as Delhi, there are vacancies. India has a judge-to-citizen ratio that is among the worst in the world. There are between 10 and 11 judges for every million Indians. In the United States, there are over 100 judges for every million citizens. In the 1980s, a Law Commission had urged that the number be increased to 50 per million in the early 1990s, and 100 per million by 2000. There's been no change.
Even in the absence of vast capacity expansion, there should at least be basic reform to how trials are conducted that would free up some existing capacity. But there is so little urgency in the higher judiciary about this problem that no steps have been taken. For example, India's trials continue to feature hours and hours of complicated oral argument. This is wasteful. Instead, an emphasis on written argument should be introduced, allowing court time to be more productively used. Then there's the question of adjournments - they are granted too easily by judges. Lawyers can wind up arguing one case for hours, and then seeking an adjournment for weeks on end. There is no space for productivity, let alone justice, in such a system. Finally, there is the question of court vacations. This year, the Supreme Court is receiving plaudits for sitting almost 200 days out of 365 - because that will be more than the 176 in 2013. But this is still nowhere near enough; its pending cases are still increasing by 1,000 a year. High courts also need to have their working hours increased, and vacation time cut.