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In Bombay HC, 40% posts of judges vacant, 5.88 lakh cases pending

While the Supreme Court collegium in February recommended the names of ten lawyers as judges of Bombay HC, the central government has not cleared them yet, keeping the number of judges less than 60, with nearly 40 per cent vacant posts.

Bombay HC (File)

The Bombay High Court is facing acute shortage of judges as appointments are not made in expedited manner. As on date, the court’s current strength is closer to half the sanctioned strength with 11 judges retiring this year and two senior judges have been recommended for elevation as Chief Justices of other High Courts.

According to the National Judicial Data Grid ( NJDG), there are 5.88 lakh cases pending before the Bombay High Court of which 1.14 lakh fresh cases were filed in the last one year and more than 16,000 criminal cases are pending for more than 10 years.

While the Supreme Court collegium in February recommended the names of ten lawyers as judges of Bombay HC, the central government has not cleared them yet, keeping the number of judges less than 60, with nearly 40 per cent vacant posts.

On June 3, the central government notified appointment of two judicial officers as Additional Bombay HC judges. While the SC collegium had recommended their names for elevation to HC in September last year, the Centre had returned their files, prompting collegium to reiterate its recommendation in February this year.

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The Bombay HC, which has a principal seat in Mumbai and benches in Aurangabad, Nagpur and Goa, is functioning with 57 judges, including 48 permanent judges and nine additional ones, though its sanctioned strength is 94, the second largest after Allahabad HC. However, due to the coming retirement and elevations, the number will fall further.

On June 6, Chief Justice Dipankar Datta recused himself from hearing a PIL seeking a permanent mechanism to fill up vacancies of judges in the High Court. The recusal was prompted as the Chief Justice, besides being the High Court’s administrative head, is also head of the collegium, the body of judges that recommends appointment of High Court judges to the SC collegium.

Moreover, two days before the end of her tenure, Justice Pushpa V Ganediwala, additional judge of the High Court who was refused elevation as a permanent judge, resigned in February this year.

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The central government on June 1 issued an order of appointment of Justice Dhiraj Singh Thakur of Jammu and Kashmir High Court as judge of Bombay High Court. Justice Thakur took an oath as judge of Bombay HC on June 10.

Eleven judges were lined up for retirement when the year began. If new appointments are not made, the number of judges may come down with four judges, including Justice Sadhana S Jadhav (who retired on June 13), having already been superannuated, three more retiring within two months and others to follow later this year.

The names of two senior judges, Justice S S Shinde and Justice A A Sayed, are recommended by the Supreme Court collegium as Chief Justices of the Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh High Courts, respectively. Both are awaiting notification of appointment by the Union Law and Justice Ministry.

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Earlier this year, Chief Justice Dipankar Datta on two separate occasions raised concerns about overburdened judges.

On March 2, refusing urgent hearing of the PIL due to difficulty to accommodate too many matters, CJ Datta had said, “Please understand the predicament of the Bench. How many judges do we have now out of 94? Less than 60. Go back in history and find out if this High Court had so few judges or not.”

Later that month, Advocate General Ashutosh Kumbhakoni had suggested that cases against legislators, where interim stay has been granted, be listed for hearing before appropriate benches of the High Court. However, CJ Datta refused the request and responded, “Where are the judges? Every month, every fortnight, we are losing one of our colleagues (due to superannuation)…”

Review meetings say ‘ask your judges to sit on Saturday’. They are already overburdened, they have to sit till 7-8 pm every day and on Saturdays. I cannot put more burden on my brother and sister judges.”

He added that the issue can be looked into if sufficient strength is achieved.

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“I do not recall that the Bombay High Court has ever achieved sanctioned strength, but close to 50 per cent strength is acute shortage. The central government should expeditiously clear pending recommendations of the collegium to fill up vacancies,” said a senior advocate, who has been practising before the Bombay High Court for more than three decades.

Another senior advocate, Nitin Thakker, president of the Bombay Bar Association (BBA), the oldest association of lawyers practising in the Bombay High Court, said, “By not appointing judges, the government is depriving common persons of justice. Justice delayed is justice denied. The names of recommended judges have been lying with the government for so many months. There are common persons, including farmers and villagers, seeking relief, including enhancement of compensation granted in land acquisition for government projects. The central government should clear pending recommendations of the collegium to fill up vacancies and the SC Collegium should process further appointments in expedited manner.”

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On the urging of the CJ Datta-led bench since last year, state and central governments have taken steps to fill up key posts at several Tribunals and Commissions.

Last month, after a nudge by the HC in a PIL filed by a parents’ association, the Maharashtra State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (MSCPCR) started its operations after two years as the appointments of chairperson and members were confirmed by the government.

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“Who is to provide officers to the tribunals? Look at the plight of litigants. The situation in the Central Government Industrial Tribunal (CGIT) is just like DRAT,” CJ Datta said. “Law provides a remedy (to approach tribunals) and the remedy is rendered futile because of you (Centre). Why keep these tribunals (at all),” he added.

In February, maintaining he “cannot allow justice to become a casualty”, CJ Datta had warned the Union Finance Ministry that if it fails to inform the court of the date of appointment of the chairperson of Debt Recovery Appellate Tribunal (DRAT), Mumbai, the High Court may summon Secretary, MoF. Within a few days, the central government cleared appointments of chiefs of five DRATs in the country.

In December last year, the Maharashtra government submitted in the High Court that it cleared appointments of chairperson and two members to the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission (MSHRC). This came after the CJ Datta-led bench had observed that “it was disheartening” that MSHRC was a “defunct body,” and had pulled up the government for delay in filling up vacant posts directing same to be filled up expeditiously to ensure panel is functional to its optimum capacity.

First published on: 14-06-2022 at 02:17 IST
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