A parliamentary panel has suggested setting up regional Benches of the Supreme Court (SC), increasing the retirement age of judges, and lamented the “diversity deficit” in the Indian judiciary.
In its report tabled in Parliament on Monday, the committee underscored the need for reassessing post-retirement assignments of judges. It bemoaned the “colonial legacy” of judges going on leave en masse.
In its report, titled Judicial Processes and Their Reform, tabled in Parliament on Monday, the parliamentary standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice said that with the increase in the retirement age of judges, the practice of post-retirement assignments to judges of the SC and high courts (HCs) in bodies financed from the public exchequer should be reassessed to ensure their impartiality.
The committee, headed by Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament (MP) Sushil Modi, said the retirement age of judges needed to be increased since longevity has increased due to advancements in medical sciences, leading to improved health of the population.
While increasing the age of retirement for judges, the performance of judges should be reassessed based on their health conditions, quality of judgments, and number of judgments delivered, it said.
“For this, a system of appraisal may be devised and put in place by the SC collegium before any judge is recommended for enhancement in tenure,” the committee said.
The committee said the data provided by the government on the social status of the judges of the HCs reveals “that our higher judiciary suffers from a diversity deficit. The representation of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, women, and minorities in the higher judiciary is far below the desired levels and does not reflect the social diversity of the country”, it said.
“In recent years, there has been a declining trend in representation from all the marginalised sections of Indian society,” the committee observed.
The panel said that while there is no provision for reservation in the judicial appointments in the HCs and the SC, adequate representation of various sections of Indian society will further strengthen the trust, credibility, and acceptability of the judiciary among the citizens.
The committee said that collegiums, while making recommendations for appointments to the higher judiciary, should give an adequate number of women and candidates from the marginalised sections of society, including minorities. This provision should be mentioned in the memoranda of procedure, which is presently under finalisation.
Currently, data related to the social status of HC judges is available from 2018 onwards. The committee recommended the Department of Justice find ways and means to collect such data in respect of all judges presently serving in the SC and HCs. For doing this, if required, necessary amendments may be brought in the respective service rules of the judges.
The panel felt that the demand for having regional Benches of the SC is about ‘access to justice’. The Delhi-centric SC causes a big hurdle for litigants coming from far-flung areas of the country, it said.
“First, there is a language problem for them, and then finding lawyers, the cost of litigation, travel, and staying in Delhi makes justice very costly,” the committee said.
The committee recommended the SC invoke Article 130 of the Constitution to establish its regional Benches at four or five locations in the country. It said that the interpretation of the Constitution and constitutional matters may be dealt with in Delhi, and the regional Benches may decide appellate matters. However, the appellate Benches may not be made as another layer of the judiciary by treating their decisions as final.
The committee felt that the need of the hour is an efficient judiciary that should modify its practices to suit the country’s needs.
“The judiciary, therefore, needs to be sensitised from shutting down courts en masse for a couple of months a year,” it said.
The demand for doing away with vacations in the courts emanates primarily due to two factors: the huge pendency of cases in our courts, and the inconvenience faced by the litigants during the vacations of the courts, it said.
“A common man holds a perception that despite having such a huge pendency of cases, their judges go on long vacations,” the committee said. It said the performance of the SC in the disposal of cases has improved, but the pendency in the HCs is humungous.
More than 6 million cases are pending, which is a reason for deep concern, but it is a grim fact that HCs have a very high level of vacancies, it said.
On December 31, overall vacancies in the HCs stood at 30 per cent of the sanctioned strength, and many had vacancies ranging between 40 per cent and 50 per cent.
The committee said it was an undeniable fact that vacations in the judiciary are a “colonial legacy”, and with the entire court going on vacation en masse, it causes deep inconvenience to the litigants. It suggested the judiciary should consider accepting the suggestion of former Chief Justice of India R M Lodha on court vacations, that instead of all the judges going on vacation, all at one time, individual judges should take their leave at different times through the year so that the courts are constantly open and there are always Benches present to hear cases.
The committee said all constitutional functionaries and government servants must file annual returns of their assets and liabilities. The SC has gone to the extent of holding that the public has a right to know the assets of those standing for elections as MPs or Members of Legislative Assembly, and thus it belies logic that judges don’t need to disclose their assets and liabilities.
“As the last resolution of the SC on the declaration of assets by judges voluntarily is not complied with, the committee recommends the government bring about appropriate legislation to make it mandatory for judges of the higher judiciary (SC and HCs) to furnish their property returns on an annual basis to the appropriate authority,” it said.
It also suggested that each court prepare its annual report, which the SC and some of the HCs already do.