Massive vacancies of judges in various high courts, which is around 38% of the total sanctioned strength, has become a flash point between the judiciary and Centre with the government on Friday telling the Supreme Court that its collegium was not recommending sufficient number of names for judgeship, while the top court blamed it on delay in clearing the names.
The issue due to vacancies is more critical in the high court’s of northeastern states of Megahlaya, Tripura and Manipur where the working strength of judges is only two and litigants have no forum to challenge a single-judge bench order before a division bench. As the litigants are left with no option, they access the Supreme Court for transfer of their appeal to the Gauhati High Court for adjudication.
A bench of Justices Madan B Lokur and Deepak Gupta, while hearing a transfer plea of one such litigant from Manipur, pulled up the Centre for not clearing the names recommended by the SC collegium for appointment of judges, causing undue harassment to litigants. The court termed it “an unfortunate situation”.
The bench which had issued notice to the Centre on April 17 and hoped for “a statesman like response” was in shock when the government blamed the SC collegium for massive vacancies in high courts. Attorney General K K Venugopal asked why the collegium was recommending few names even though there are a huge number of vacancies in HCs.
Venugopal said the collegium should take a broad view and recommend more names to fill up the vacancies. “Some high courts have 40 vacancies and recommendation of the collegium is only for three. And the government is being told that we are tardy in filling up vacancies,” he said.
The bench, however, questioned the government for sitting on the recommendations of the collegium and not clearing the names for appointment of judges in the higher judiciary. “Tell us, how many names are pending with you,” the court asked the attorney general. It directed the Centre to file affidavit giving information and adjourned the hearing.
Although differences have cropped up time and again between the collegium and Centre over appointment of judges in higher judiciary, the latest being the government’s refusal to clear the name of the Uttarakhand Chief Justice K M Joseph for appointment as an SC judge, the apex court will now examine delay on the judicial side.
“It must be acknowledged that a situation such as the present not only inconveniences the litigants but also creates attendant issues, including difficulties in communication with lawyers, 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 problems. Some steps are required to be taken on an urgent basis to remedy the situation for the sake of litigants,” the bench said while issuing notice to the Centre.