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HomeJudiciaryMassive caseload, massive vacancies: Inside story of extraordinary mismatch at Allahabad HC

Massive caseload, massive vacancies: Inside story of extraordinary mismatch at Allahabad HC

From 2000 to 2021, 1.71 lakh criminal appeals were filed with the Allahabad High Court, but it has decided on only 31,044 of them.

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New Delhi: Pending vacancies, limited appointments of judges and a massive caseload are some of the reasons cited for the large number of criminal appeals pending in the Allahabad High Court.

On 25 August, an SC bench comprising Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice Hrishikesh Roy had expressed concern over the “astronomical” number of criminal appeals pending in the Allahabad HC, noting that this problem did not exist in any other high court.

The observation came while the bench was hearing the bail petitions of 18 convicts, sentenced to life imprisonment, who had served over a decade in jail and yet their appeals, against the trial court order convicting them, remained pending.

The apex court asked the government and the Allahabad High Court to explore options to remedy the situation, and also offered to set out broad parameters for the HC to ensure that the time spent in jail is considered while hearing bail petitions.

However, till definite guidelines are set, the Supreme Court suggested that the Uttar Pradesh government classify the prisoners and release them on parole — a proposal that the state government counsel expressed reservations about during the hearing.

The disposal rate of criminal appeals in the Allahabad HC, the biggest court in the country, is just 18 per cent, according to a report by the state government.

The report was tabled before the top court during the hearing of the 18 convicts’ appeal and accessed by ThePrint. It revealed that currently there are 1.85 lakh criminal appeals waiting to be heard and decided by the HC. From 2000 to 2021, more than 1.71 lakh appeals were filed, but the court decided on only 31,044 of them.

The government also noted that as many as 7,214 convicts, who have served over 10 years in prison, are lodged in various UP jails waiting for their appeals to be heard.

This is also not the first time that the Supreme Court hauled up the Allahabad HC over pending criminal appeals. In June 2020, another bench led by Justice L.N. Rao had noted that the Allahabad HC accounted for 98 per cent of a total of 14,484 appeals that were pending for over 30 years in 10 HCs.

Two years before this, in 2018, a bench comprising Justices J. Chelameswar (now retired) and Kaul had picked the high court as a case study to arrive at a mechanism to reduce the delay in disposal of criminal appeals.

The report submitted by this bench had revealed that more than 13,600 appeals had been pending in this HC for over 10 years.


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Judges’ posts vacant for years in Allahabad HC

According to lawyers and former judges of the Allahabad HC, there exist multiple factors behind the large volume of pending appeals, including lawyers seeking adjournment, the population of the state, and the unequal distribution of districts between the two benches of the HC — Allahabad and Lucknow.

However, most of them cited the large number of judge vacancies that have been lying open for years.

The Allahabad HC has a sanctioned strength of 160 judges, but the working strength of the court has not crossed 60 per cent in the past 10 years due to irregular and unpredictable appointments, according to ThePrint’s analysis of all appointments and retirements in the high court between 2011 to 2021.

The court witnessed its maximum working strength in mid-2019 with 111 judges. However, within a month, the strength dropped to 99 after some judges retired.

The new judges appointed during this period were just enough to fill up the vacancies created, but not the ones that have been empty for years.

Members of the Bar told ThePrint that inordinate delays by the HC and SC collegiums as well as the state and central governments in processing appointments led to a vacancy crisis in the court.

Thanks to the delay, judges have shorter tenures, particularly in the case of promotion of trial court judges to the HC, since this usually happens when they’re in their 50s.

“The issue related to the large number of vacancies in the Allahabad High Court is decades-old. The sanctioned strength of 160 was never filled and the same was highlighted from time to time at appropriate forums by different stakeholders,” a lawyer practicing in the HC told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.

At present, there are only 92 judges in the HC, which makes the working strength just 57.5 per cent.


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Appointments between 2011 and 2021

According to data perused by ThePrint, in the last decade (2011-2021), 175 appointments were made to the Allahabad HC, while 151 judges retired in the same period.

Of the 151 retirees, 85 judges were appointed on or after 2011 (and thus were part of the 175 appointments) and had a tenure of just about 10 years and retired at the end of the decade. The remaining 66 were appointed prior to 2011.

Of the current 92 judges, 90 were appointed in the last 10 years and two before 2011. Fifty-five of these judges have a term of more than five years.

Furthermore, only in five of the last 10 years has the total number of appointments been greater than the retirements. In the other five, appointments have been disproportionate to the retirements. For instance, in the last three years, 42 judges retired from the high court but only 28 joined it.

In 2020, the number of appointments dropped to a record low of four, which was one-fourth of the total 16 retirements.

This year, the Allahabad HC has got only seven new judges. But the number is expected to rise with the Supreme Court collegium sending 13 names for approval and reiterating three others that were earlier rejected by the central government. When a name is reiterated by the SC for appointment, it is supposed to be binding on the government.

In the next three years, the number of vacancies is set to rise even higher, with 28 judges set to demit office — nine in the next one year, 12 within two years, and seven within three.


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Slow approval process for judges

Former Allahabad High Court chief justice Govind Mathur said the procedure to process names for fresh appointments is extremely slow.

“The 13 names cleared last week by the SC collegium were sent by the HC collegium on 19 May 2020 as part of a list of 31 recommendations. First, the government took time to forward them to the SC collegium, and then the latter took its own time to finalise. Even then, the SC collegium has cleared only 13 names,” Mathur told ThePrint.

Similarly, in 2019, 28 out of 37 recommendations were cleared, but it took a year for both the government and SC collegium to notify the appointments, he pointed out.

“Though once they joined, the strength, for the first time, went up to 111, but within a month, came back to 99,” he added.

According to Justice Mathur, the SC collegium needs to repose faith in the HC when it comes to selecting eligible candidates for elevation.

“Unless there is an IB report alleging specific corruption charges, all recommendations should come through, irrespective of political affiliations of the candidate. No lawyer in this country can be apolitical,” he said.

The lack of adequate number of judges has also left the serving ones unable to dedicate time to hear old pending appeals, Mathur explained. “The judges give primacy to fresh admission matters because even they are equally important.”

However, he disagreed with the narrative that pendency was an issue only with the Allahabad HC. He pointed out that there are six lakh cases each pending in the Rajasthan HC and Punjab and Haryana HC, while the respective populations are six crore each. “In contrast, UP has a population of 24 crore, with 10 lakh cases pending,” Justice Mathur said.

Division of work between Lucknow and Allahabad benches

Justice Mathur also suggested equitable distribution of the workload between the Allahabad HC’s Lucknow and Allahabad benches, if appointments cannot be fast-tracked. For this, he said, parliamentary intervention is required.

Of the total of 75 districts in Uttar Pradesh, the Allahabad bench has jurisdiction over 58, while Lucknow hears cases from the remaining 17.

“At present, the Lucknow bench always has between 31 and 35 judges. It is well-equipped infrastructure-wise, so jurisdiction of some districts can be transferred here,” he said.

However, for this, Parliament will have to amend the law that allowed the merger of the Awadh and Allahabad HCs post-independence.

“At that time, the governor-general of India had the legislative competence to permit this merger, and it was with his consent that the amalgamation order was passed. In 1975, SC also held that transfer of jurisdiction from Allahabad to Lucknow can only be done by Parliament,” the former chief justice explained.

(With inputs from Tushar Kohli)


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