The stand-off between the judiciary and the legislature over the procedure for appointing judges comes at a time when the country’s 24 high courts have 397 pending vacancies for judges, and what’s more, eight of them having acting chief justices.
It is not clear at this point whether these vacancies can now be filled through the earlier collegium system or that will have to wait till the system is improved as the Supreme Court has actually said it should be.
Data collated from the websites of each high court shows that as of now, 397 of the 1,017 posts of justices of the high courts are lying vacant. That’s a vacancy level of 39%, a serious shortfall when lakhs of cases are pending in the high courts.
The biggest shortfall in both absolute numbers and the proportion of sanctioned posts is in the Allahabad high court where there are only 75 sitting judges versus a sanctioned strength of 160. That means the number of vacancies, 85, is more than the number of sitting judges.
The Karnataka and Rajasthan high courts also have half the sanctioned posts lying vacant.
Another seven high courts have vacancy levels of over 40%. These include Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The Bombay high court with 33 vacancies, the Punjab & Haryana high court with the same number and the Madras high court with 23 vacancies are not significantly better off.
These are among the biggest high courts in the country handling the largest workloads. Vacancies in them, therefore, have a serious impact on disposal of cases in the higher judiciary.
In fact, only three of the high courts are operating at full strength at the moment and these are the high courts of Sikkim, Meghalaya and Tripura. However, these are all much smaller high courts with sanctioned strengths of 3-4 judges.
The information collected from the websites also shows that the Bombay, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, Patna, Punjab & Haryana, Rajasthan and Gauhati high courts are all functioning with acting chief justices at the moment.
Will the confusion on what happens to appointments in the higher judiciary mean the situation not only continues to remain bad, but could actually worsen with some judges retiring? Don’t bet versus that.