The Department of Justice in the Ministry of Law informed Parliament  in March that 26,851,766 cases were pending in subordinate courts.  This figure has remained unchanged since at least 2012. The number of cases pending in all the court is estimated to be upwards of 3 crore.

One of the main reasons for this backlog is that enormous numbers judicial vacancies remain unfilled. In August, the Law Ministry said that the country's High Courts had a shortfall of 384 judges in its sanctioned strength of 1,1017 positions. In December 2013, the Supreme Court stated that of a sanctioned strength of 19,518 positions in the subordinate courts, there were 4,403 vacancies.

This should have been a reminder for the judiciary to move fast to appoint more judges in the lower courts. But the controversy about the Delhi Judicial Service examination underscores the enormity of the problem.

Not good enough?

In February 2014, the Delhi High Court  issued an advertisment for the posts of 85 judges to be appointed in district courts. Around 10,000 lawyers and judges from across the country had turned out to sit for the preliminary exam. The job has many attractions: the perks include government accommodation, leave travel allowance, medical benefits and more. Besides, a sessions judge in a Delhi court can also move up to become a judge in the Delhi High Court, which brings with it an even healthier pay packet and perks.
From these 10,000 applicants, only 700 were selected to sit for the main test. This exam, spread over two days, looked at the applicants’ understanding of civil and criminal law, as also their general knowledge.

The results, which were announced in May this year, showed that only 15 people had qualified.

Among the 885 candidates who flunked the test were 68 judges, who had applied from other parts of the country. Many of them had topped the judicial exams in their own states. Other applicants who failed to make the grade included top lawyers with degrees from prestigious law schools.

Charges of nepotism

As it turned out, all the 15 shortlisted applicants who went on to be interviewed and appointed as judges were directly linked to Delhi High Court judges – two were daughters of judges, others were doing clerkships under them or were variously related.

One of the applicants who is presently a judge from another state, said that an RTI petition was made for applicants to be allowed to see their answer sheets.  Some where shocked to find that they had scored zero for their English essay.  An essay, this person pointed out, is not a mathematical sum where the answer is either right or wrong.

"What was equally horrifying was that the roll numbers and names of candidates were still on the answer sheets, which is against the Supreme Court directive because these candidates can  be identified," he said, requesting anonymity.

The results caused such an outrage that Minister of Law DV Sadananda Gowda sent a letter to the chief justice of Delhi High Court, asking him to look into the matter to find out if indeed  there had been "corruption, favourtism and nepotism" in the way the exam had been conducted.

Unreasonable and arbitrary

In August, the Supreme Court admitted a plea filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation asking it to quash these results, describing the entire selection process as being unreasonable and arbitrary. Appearing for the Centre, activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan said, "We need to have independent system of evaluation in place. I understand the answer sheets were evaluated by district judges of the Delhi court, which was obviously not appropriate."  He said he had asked for an independent committee of retired judges to look into the process.

The Supreme Court bench of Justice Deepak Mishra and Justice PC Pant asked the Registrar General of the Delhi High Court to reply within three weeks but refused to stay the process.

Twenty months after the posts were advertised, most of the lawyers who sat for the exam wonder if there is any possibility of a retest, though none of them want to be openly identified as campaigning against the court.

On October 3, the Delhi High Court notified 100 vacancies for the lower judiciary in Delhi. Many lawyers believe this has been done to take the teeth out of the PIL filed by the Centre for Public Interest Litigation . This will mean applicants will have to sit for a fresh round of exams and they can only hope that their experience is better than last time.

The Delhi case isn't an anomaly, say people familiar with the stiatuion. The Allahabad High Court, for instance, is operating at less than 50% of its sanctioned capacity. As a result, there are one million cases pending before this high court alone.