Govt mulls doubling number of SC justices to tackle case backlog

Published On: July 19, 2019 07:27 AM NPT By: Ananta Raj Luitel

KATHMANDU, July 19: As the number of cases registered at the Supreme Court keeps increasing, officials in the judiciary and the government are mulling a doubling of the number of justices at the apex court.

The officials argue that increasing the number of justices has become necessary as the existing number has failed to clear the huge backlog of cases. 

“The existing level of human resources in the judiciary cannot tackle the workload which is increasing day by day,” Bhadrakali Pokhrel, spokesperson for the SC, told Republica. “But it is not easy to increase the number of justices at the apex court because the Constitution has set a fixed number,” he said.

According to Article 129 of the Constitution, there should be 21 justices, including the Chief Justice, at the Supreme Court. 

After settling 10,203 cases in the just-ended fiscal year, a total of 23,507 cases remain pending at the Supreme Court for this fiscal year. A total of 14,223 cases were registered there from July 17, 2018 to July 17, 2019, according to Pokhrel. 

If things remain unchanged and the court carries on its work at the present pace, it will need another three years just to clear the existing backlog.

There are 160 judges at the high courts and 240 at the district courts and they have to tackle almost 150,000 cases that get registered across the country.

“There are various reasons behind the rapid rise in the number of cases. One of the reasons is enforcement of the new civil code which has brought new trends in litigation,” said Pokhrel. 

“It has made it easier for husbands to file for divorce,” he said. Although it might be too hasty to draw conclusions from cases registered in just one single year, there is a clear trend, he further said. In the last 11 months since the enforcement of the new code, case filings have accelerated. 

Officials also said it is highly likely that more cases have piled up at the apex court because of the complications of the federal system. Disputes between the different tiers and units of the federal system have generated more litigation.

According to high-ranking sources at the judiciary, the government and the judicial leadership are mulling over doubling the existing number of justices, even amending the constitution to that end. “However, there has been no written proposal so far,” the sources claimed. 

The recently adopted fourth five-year strategic plan for the judiciary has also underlined the need for sufficient human resources for dealing with the case backlog.

Adding to the number of judges may, however, raise serious questions about the motives of the government. Some fear the possibility of the wrong kind of candidates getting into the judiciary.

Balaram KC, a former justice of the Supreme Court, has criticized the idea of amending the constitution to increase the number of justices in the apex court. 

“It is a ridicules idea,” he said.

Stating that there are 31 justices in the Supreme Court of India to serve a population of 1.35 billion and only nine justices in the Supreme Court of United States of America which has a population of 360 million, KC finds untenable the demand to increase the number of judges in the Supreme Court of Nepal with a population of 30 million. “The justice delivery system can be improved by bringing reforms in case management, the cause-list management and the judicial council,” he added.

“Increasing the number of judges is one option but amending the constitution is not an easy thing. We have other options such as the increasing the powers of the lower courts and amending the procedural laws,” said Justice Sapana Pradhan Malla. 

Malla also pointed out the need of discouraging the public from moving the apex court over petty matters.

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