By Yatin Jain —
Status: Incomplete — Despite recent progress in high court judicial appointments, the total number of vacancies in the high courts and district courts remain high.
High Difficulty: State Procedure — The procedure for appointing high court judges begins within six months of an expected vacancy. During this period, the chief minister of the respective state needs to submit judge recommendations. The lag and tardiness in this process have resulted in high vacancies. To expedite the appointment of district court judges, the creation of an All India Judicial Service (AIJS) has been suggested by Minister of Law Ravi Shankar Prasad. Despite some movement, the AIJS has not been constituted.
This is the twenty-fifth installment in a new series of articles on the India Reforms Scorecard: 2019-2024 by the staff and experts at the Wadhwani Chair in U.S.-India Policy Studies. The series seeks to provide analysis on why reforms marked as “Incomplete” or “In Progress” have not been completed, and the impact such reforms can have on specific sectors or the economy at large.
Judicial vacancies are prevalent throughout the Indian judicial system. This has led to a high number of pending court cases. Filling these vacancies is crucial for increasing the efficiency of the Indian judiciary. In addition to accelerating court case disposal – this will also positively impact India’s economic growth trajectory by further creating an environment that values contracts, business, and investment.
While the Supreme Court of India only has one vacant seat, the problem lies with judicial vacancies in Indian high courts and district courts – 37 percent and 26 percent vacant, respectively. As of March 2020, Indian high courts and district courts have over 4.6 million cases and over 32 million cases awaiting decision. Both the subordinate courts have had over 60 percent of these cases pending for over a year. Court vacancies, among other factors, are impacting the rate at which cases are being disposed. Thus, judicial vacancies are creating a slower and delayed court system.
Court vacancies also reduce India’s potential for serving as a conducive business environment. Sanctity of contracts is crucial in companies’ cost-benefit analysis on whether their investment will be safe, and their contracts honored. Further, despite India’s climb in World Bank rankings, many indicators still show poor performance on India’s end in terms of ease of doing business. India lags behind in areas such as registering property and upholding contracts. Filling judicial vacancies can have a bearing on India’s ease of doing business through a faster court system. The judicial system is, therefore, partially responsible for India’s economic growth. Especially with foreign direct investment rising in India, giving companies the trust that the country will handle legal issues in an appropriate and timely manner will further incentivize investment.
The lack of judges in India’s high courts and district courts also thwarts meaningful progress for judicial specialization, such as the efficiency of commercial courts in India. Commercial courts were established in India through the Commercial Courts Act of 2015 as special courts that would assign specialized judges to reduce pendency on banking, trade, and other economic cases. The act, however, saw little success. Commercial judges continued to hear civil and criminal cases – hereby defeating the purpose of the act. To successfully implement commercial specialization, filling judicial vacancies is a first step to improve general case pendency. Then, and only then, can more attention be given to specialization and the appointments of commercial court judges.
The Modi government needs to make reducing judicial vacancies a priority. By doing this, India can further establish a conducive business environment and pave the way to expand economic growth.