While there were 39.3 lakh cases pending at the 24 High Courts in India at the end of 2015, the number has since risen to 43.5 lakh cases, said PP Chaudhary, minister of state for law and justice in Lok Sabha.
The increasing backlog of cases in the higher judiciary is largely a result of the high levels of vacancy in judge positions in these courts.
Against a total sanctioned strength of 1,079 judges in the Supreme Court and the 24 High Courts of India, only 662 were filled, and 417 were vacant as of this month.
In fact, the percentage of vacancies in the Supreme Court has increased sharply in the last two years — from 16% in 2016 to 29% at present.
The high level of vacancies have been continuing for several years.
Judges are appointed by the government based on a list sent by the respective Chief Justices.
To prevent vacancies, the Memorandum of Procedure for appointment of judges requires that the Chief Justice initiate proposals to fill up a vacancy six months before the vacancy occurs.
Appointments can also be derailed if the government does not respond to the suggestions of the collegium of judges.
MPs such as Ganesh Singh, MK Raghavan and Bharat Singh expressed concern over the high levels of vacancies and asked the government to state how many appointments recommended by the judiciary have been kept pending by it for more than one month.
Chaudhary, however, did not state the number. Instead, he said the government was following the protocol.
“Filling up of vacancies in the Supreme Court and High Courts is a continuous and collaborative process, between the Executive and the Judiciary,” he said, without giving the data.
According to the numbers provided by the law ministry, the situation is slightly better in trial courts, where appointments are done by the state governments.
According to them, trial courts have shown a marked improvement in the reduction of vacancies during the last two years.
Against a vacancy of 30% in 2016, the latest numbers show a vacancy of 24%.
Out of the 22,545 slots for judges in district and subordinate courts, 17,109 were filled.
The difference can also be seen in the number of pending cases.
While there has been an 11% increase in the number of pending cases in front of the high courts, the number of pending cases in the lower judiciary has remained largely static at around 2.76 cr during the period.
Among the states with the lowest levels of pending cases at lower courts are Andhra Pradesh (5.2 lakh), Telangana (4.9 lakh), Haryana (6.7 lakh) and Punjab (6.1 lakh).
Among those with a large number of pending cases are Uttar Pradesh (66.5 lakh) and Maharashtra (34.3 lakh).