SC, Centre trade blame for shortage of high court judges

The Supreme Court and the Union government sparred on Friday over the delay in filling up the growing vacancies in high courts, with the apex court blaming the problem on the government and the Centre pointing a finger at the SC collegium.

A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, while hearing a transfer plea of a litigant from Manipur, questioned the attorney general about the status of collegium recommendations for high courts. The AG in turn said the number of recommendations being made by the collegium were not enough to fill the large number of vacancies in the high courts.
The bench pulled up the Centre for not clearing the names recommended by the SC collegium for appointment as judges, causing undue harassment to litigants.
“Your shortly… can be several months. What are you doing?” the bench asked.
Assuring the court that appointments to High Courts in the North-East would be made soon, the Attorney General said that will not however resolve the problem of vacancies in all high courts.
“The collegium has to look at the future. Recommendations need to be made keeping in mind vacancies that will arise six months later,” Venugopal said, adding that though some high courts had 40 per cent vacancy, only a few names were being recommended for appointments. “Collegium doesn’t send us the names and the government is told it is being tardy in processing,” he said.
This prompted the bench to ask the AG if he had the data on the pending recommendations of the collegium for appointments to high courts. When Venugopal replied in the negative, the bench said “when we ask for data, you don’t have (it). But when it comes to attacking the judiciary, you have the data”.
The high courts have vacancies for nearly 38 per cent of their sanctioned posts. The problem is more acute in the states of Meghalaya, Tripura and Manipur. The HCs in these states have to do with only two judges, and as a result, litigants have no forum to challenge orders of a single-judge bench. The litigants are left with no option but to approach the SC for transfer of their appeal to the Gauhati HC for adjudication.
The bench said the situation in the North-East was “critical”. “In Meghalaya, there is only one judge against four. Even Tripura has just two against four. Recommendation was also made for Meghalaya. What happened to that? People of North-East are suffering … what are they supposed to do? Should they come here to get their cases transferred to other High Courts and spend money to hire lawyers there?” the bench said.
The bench directed the Centre to file an affidavit giving the information and adjourned the hearing.
The Centre and the collegium have often differed over the appointment of judges in the SC and HCs, the latest instance being the government’s refusal to clear the name of Uttarakhand HC Chief Justice K M Joseph for appointment as an SC judge.
The upshot of the blame splitting in the open court means that the SC will examine the delay on the judicial side as well.
“It must be appreciated that a situation such as the present not only inconveniences the litigants but also creates attendant problems, including difficulties in communication with lawyers and payment of fees to lawyers outside Manipur. What is worse is that litigants have to come all the way to this court for relief, entailing further expenses and other issues. Some steps are required to be taken on an urgent basis to remedy the situation for the sake of litigants,” the bench had said while issuing notice to the centre.
The petitioner wanted the Supreme Court’s permission to challenge an order of a single judge of the Manipur High Court before the Gauhati High Court. He claimed he could not file an appeal in the Manipur High Court since it had only two judges, one of whom had given the order. The Supreme Court had sought the attorney general’s assistance in the matter.