Chief Justice of India T. S. Thakur on Saturday pushed for early appointment of judges to the High Courts, saying vacancies are likely to mount to 500 this year, with the system already under great pressure.
He said the government has expressed its willingness to resume the appointment process as per the "earlier procedure" (collegium system) and the issue of appointment of as many as 130 judges is before the Law Ministry.
The CJI was speaking after inaugurating the 14th All India Meet of State Legal Services Authorities here.
"The process of appointments got delayed for a while as the Constitutional amendment (related to National Judicial Appointments Commission or NJAC) came under challenge.
"After the matter was resolved, the Law Minister (D. V. Sadananda Gowda), realising that the process of amendment of the memorandum of procedure may take time, wrote a letter to me that the government is willing for the process to be resumed on the basis of earlier procedure," he said.
"We immediately agreed and within a period of six weeks we cleared nearly 163 names that were stuck for more than a year with us because of the controversy regarding National Judicial Commission," Thakur said.
Of those recommendations, about 90 appointments as permanent judges and about 40 as fresh ones made to HCs have already come through and others are in pipeline, he said.
"Every time I meet the (Law) Minister he tells me he is taking personal pains (to speed up the process), he is going to PMO and trying to tell people that while the process of improvement of the system by way of amendment of the memorandum of procedure can go on, appointments in the judiciary cannot be delayed.
"Because we have today something like around 450 (posts of judges) vacancies in the High Courts to be filled up and over this year there will be another 50 which will take the total (vacancies) to 500," maintained the CJI, who took charge of the top Supreme Court post in December last year.
"System is under great pressure which I am happy to tell you is also appreciated and realised by the Government."
After the process started, Thakur said he wrote a letter to Chief Justices of High Courts and as per his information, about 130 names have already been recommended from various HCs which are in process with the Law Ministry.
He said he is sure the Law Minister is going to process those because he realises that while "we are open to improvement in procedural angle...the process of appointments must go on because access to justice is something which has been recognised by the Supreme Court as fundamental right of a citizen."
"And if you are not to appoint judges you are actually depriving people of their fundamental right. That's something which is totally unacceptable," Thakur said at the function, attended among others by Sadananda Gowda and Telangana Chief Minister K. Chandrasekhar Rao.
The CJI said the challenges before the National Legal Service Authority have multiplied manifold. Once the challenges multiply, the need to meet, discuss and share experiences and evolve strategies also increases.
One of the major challenges continues to be making justice accessible to the poor, he said. "We have today 40 crore people under BPL. Primarily our concern and our challenge is to reach out to that poor section of the society who are unaware of their rights and incapable of seeking redress," he said, adding that making them aware about their rights is in itself something which presents a major challenge.
The CJI said since February last year, 62 lakh pending cases have been decided by Lok Adalat and by mediation, and 1.61 crore pre-litigation cases which had the potential to land in the courts were settled. "I think this is a great service not only to the poor to whom we provide free legal aid but also to relieve the judicial system of the burden that would have fallen on it."
The CJI said had these activities (Lok Adalat and other forms of mediation) been wound up, it would have added another 2.2 crore to the pendency of cases chocking the courts "as we have been told three crore cases (are already) pending."