In a landmark judgment on April 12, 2012, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutional validity of the provision in the Right to Education Act, 2009 that makes it mandatory for all schools (government and private) except private, unaided minority schools to reserve 25% of their seats for children belonging to “weaker section and disadvantaged group”.  The verdict was given by a three-judge bench namely Justice S.H. Kapadia (CJI), Justice Swatanter Kumar and Justice K.S. Radhakrishnan.  However, the judgment was not unanimous.  Justice Radhakrishnan gave a dissenting view to the majority judgment. According to news reports (here and here), some school associations are planning to file review petitions against the Supreme Court order (under Article 137 of the Constitution, the Supreme Court may review any judgment or order made by it.  A review petition may be filed if there is (a) discovery of new evidence, (b) an error apparent on the face of the record, or (c) any other sufficient reason). In this post, we summarise the views of the judges. Background of the petition The 86th (Constitutional Amendment) Act, 2002 added Article 21A to the Constitution which makes it mandatory for the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children from the age of six to 14 years (fundamental right).  The Parliament enacted the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009 to give effect to this amendment. The Act provides that children between the ages of six and 14 years have the right to free and compulsory education in a neighbourhood school.  It also lays down the minimum norms that each school has to follow in order to get legal recognition.  The Act required government schools to provide free and compulsory education to all admitted children. Similarly, aided schools have to provide free and compulsory education proportionate to the funding received, subject to a minimum of 25%. However, controversy erupted over Section 12(1)(c) and (2) of the Act, which required private, unaided schools to admit at least 25% of students from SCs, STs, low-income and other disadvantaged or weaker groups.  The Act stated that these schools shall be reimbursed for either their tuition charge or the per-student expenditure in government schools, whichever is lower.  After the Act was notified on April 1, 2010, the Society for Unaided Private Schools of Rajasthan filed a writ petition challenging the constitutional validity of this provision on the ground that it impinged on their right to run educational institutions without government interference. Summary of the judgment Majority The Act is constitutionally valid and shall apply to (a) government controlled schools, (b) aided schools (including minority administered schools), and (c) unaided, non-minority schools.  The reasons are given below: First, Article 21A makes it obligatory on the State to provide free and compulsory education to all children between 6 and 14 years of age.  However, the manner in which the obligation shall be discharged is left to the State to determine by law.  Therefore, the State has the freedom to decide whether it shall fulfill its obligation through its own schools, aided schools or unaided schools.  The 2009 Act is “child centric” and not “institution centric”.  The main question was whether the Act violates Article 19(1)(g) which gives every citizen the right to practice a profession or carry out any occupation, trade or business.  However, the Constitution provides that Article 19(1)(g) may be circumscribed by Article 19(6), which allow reasonable restriction over this right in the interest of the general public.  The Court stated that since “education” is recognized as a charitable activity [see TMA Pai Foundation vs State of Karnataka (2002) 8 SCC 481] reasonable restriction may apply. Second, the Act places a burden on the State as well as parents/guardians to ensure that every child has the right to education.  Thus, the right to education “envisages a reciprocal agreement between the State and the parents and it places an affirmative burden on all stakeholders in our civil society.”  The private, unaided schools supplement the primary obligation of the State to provide for free and compulsory education to the specified category of students. Third, TMA Pai and P.A. Inamdar judgments hold that the right to establish and administer educational institutions fall within Article 19(1)(g).  It includes right to admit students and set up reasonable fee structure.  However, these principles were applied in the context of professional/higher education where merit and excellence have to be given due weightage.  This does not apply to a child seeking admission in Class I.  Also, Section 12(1)(c) of the Act seeks to remove financial obstacle.  Therefore, the 2009 Act should be read with Article 19(6) which provides for reasonable restriction on Article 19(1)(g).  However, the government should clarify the position with regard to boarding schools and orphanages. The Court also ruled that the 2009 Act shall not apply to unaided, minority schools since they are protected by Article 30(1) (all minorities have the right to establish and administer educational institutions of their choice).  This right of the minorities is not circumscribed by reasonable restriction as is the case under Article 19(1)(g). Dissenting judgment Article 21A casts an obligation on the State to provide free and compulsory education to children of the age of 6 to 14 years.  The obligation is not on unaided non-minority and minority educational institutions.  Section 12(1)(c) of the RTE Act can be operationalised only on the principles of voluntariness, autonomy and consensus for unaided schools and not on compulsion or threat of non-recognition.  The reasons for such a judgment are given below: First, Article 21A says that the “State shall provide” not “provide for”.  Therefore, the constitutional obligation is on the State and not on non-state actors to provide free and compulsory education to a specified category of children.  Also, under Article 51A(k) of the Constitution, parents or guardians have a duty to provide opportunities for education to their children but not a constitutional obligation. Second, each citizen has the fundamental right to establish and run an educational institution “investing his own capital” under Article 19(1)(g).  This right can be curtailed in the interest of the general public by imposing reasonable restrictions.  Citizens do not have any constitutional obligation to start an educational institution.  Therefore, according to judgments of TMA Pai and PA Inamdar, they do not have any constitutional obligation to share seats with the State or adhere to a fee structure determined by the State.  Compelling them to do so would amount to nationalization of seats and would constitute serious infringement on the autonomy of the institutions. Rights guaranteed to the unaided non-minority and minority educational institutions under Article 19(1)(g) and Article 30(1) can only be curtailed through a constitutional amendment (for example, insertion of Article 15(5) that allows reservation of seats in private educational institutions). Third, no distinction can be drawn between unaided minority and non-minority schools with regard to appropriation of quota by the State. Other issues related to the 2009 Act Apart from the issue of reservation, the RTE Act raises other issues such as lack of accountability of government schools and lack of focus on learning outcomes even though a number of studies have pointed to low levels of learning among school children.  (For a detailed analysis, please see PRS Brief on the Bill).

Recently, the Supreme Court collegium reiterated its recommendations for the appointment of 11 judges to certain High Courts.  It had first recommended these names earlier this year and in August last year, but these appointments were not made.  The Indian judiciary faces high vacancies across all levels (the Supreme Court, High Courts, and subordinate courts).  Vacancy of judges in courts is one of the reasons for delays and a rising number of pending cases, as there are not enough judges to hear and decide cases.  As of today, more than four crore cases are pending across all courts in India.   In this blog post, we discuss vacancies across courts over the years, delays in appointment of judges, and methods to determine the adequate judge strength required to handle the caseload courts face.

High vacancy of judges across courts

Vacancies in courts keep on arising periodically due to retirement, resignation, demise, or elevation of judges.  Over the years, the sanctioned strength of judges in both High Courts and subordinate courts has been increased gradually.  However, vacancies persist due to insufficient appointments (see Figures 1 and 2).  Between 2010 and 2020, vacancies increased from 18% to 21% across all levels of courts (from 6% to 12% in the Supreme Court, from 33% to 38% in High Courts, and from 18% to 20% in subordinate courts). 

Figure 1: Vacancy of judges in High Courts

Figure 2: Vacancy of judges in subordinate courts



Sources: Court News 2010-2018; Vacancy Statement, and Rajya Sabha replies, Part I, Budget Session (2021), Department of Justice; PRS.

As on November 1, 2021, the Supreme Court had a vacancy of one judge (out of a sanctioned strength of 34).  Vacancy in High Courts stood at 37% (406 posts vacant out of a sanctioned strength of 1,098).  Since May, 2021, the Supreme Court collegium has recommended more than 130 names for appointment as High Court judges.  In three High Courts (Telangana, Patna, and Calcutta), at least half of the posts are vacant (see Figure 3).  The Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice (2020) noted that every year, 35-40% of posts of High Court judges remain unfilled. 

Figure 3: Vacancy of judges across High Courts (in %) (as on November 1, 2021)


Source: Vacancy Statement, Department of Justice; PRS.










Appointments of High Court judges are guided by a memorandum of procedure.  As per this memorandum, the appointment process is to be initiated by the concerned High Court at least six months before a vacancy occurs.  However, the Standing Committee (2021) noted that this timeline is rarely adhered to by High Courts.  Further, in the final stage of the process, after receiving recommendations from the Supreme Court collegium, the executive appoints judges to the High Court.  No timeline is prescribed for this stage of the appointment process.  In 2018 and 2019, the average time taken to appoint High Court judges after receiving the collegium’s recommendations was five to seven months.

As of today, over 3.6 crore cases are pending before subordinate courts in India.  As on February 20, 2020, 21% posts for judges were vacant (5,146 posts out of the sanctioned strength of 24,018) in subordinate courts.  Subordinate courts in Bihar, Haryana, and Jharkhand (among the states with high population) had a high proportion of vacancies of judges (see Figure 4).  Note that the Supreme Court is monitoring the procedure for appointment of judges to subordinate courts.

For an analysis of the data on pendency and vacancies in the Indian judiciary, see here.

Figure 4: Vacancy of judges across subordinate courts (in %) (as on February 20, 2020)


Source: Report No. 101, Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice (2020); PRS.


How many judges do we need?

The Law Commission of India (1987) had noted the importance of manpower planning for the judiciary.  Lack of adequate number of judges means a greater workload per judge.  Thus, it becomes essential to arrive at an optimal judge strength to deal with pending and new cases in courts.  Over the years, different methods of calculating the required judge strength for subordinate courts (where the backlog of cases in the Indian judiciary is concentrated) have been recommended (see Table 1). 

Table 1: Methods recommended for calculating the required number of judges for subordinate courts

Method of calculation

Recommendation and its status

Judge-to-population ratio: optimum number of judges per million population

The Law Commission of India (1987) had recommended increasing this ratio to 50 judges per million people.  This was reiterated by the Supreme Court (2001) and the Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2002).  For 2020, the judge-to-population ratio was 21 judges per million population.     Note that this figure is calculated based on the sanctioned strength of judges in the Supreme Court, High Courts and subordinate courts.

Rate of disposal: number of additional judges required (to clear the existing backlog of cases and ensure that new backlog is not created) based on the average number of cases disposed per judge

The Law Commission of India (2014) proposed this method.  It rejected the judge-to-population ratio method, observing that filing of cases per capita varies substantially across geographic units depending on socio-economic conditions.

Weighted case load method: calculating judge strength based on the disposal by judges, taking into account the nature and complexity of cases in local conditions

The National Court Management Systems Committee (NCMS) (2016) critiqued the rate of disposal method.     It proposed, as an interim measure, the weighted case load method, which addresses the existing backlog of cases as well as the new flow of cases every year in subordinate courts.     In 2017, the Supreme Court accepted this model.

Time-based weighted case load method: calculating the required judge strength taking into account the actual time spent by judges in different types of cases at varying stages based on an empirical study

Used widely in the United States, this was the long-term method recommended by the NCMS (2016) to assess the required judge strength for subordinate courts.  It involves determining the total number of ‘judicial hours’ required for disposing of the case load of each court.  The Delhi High Court used this approach in a pilot project (January 2017- December 2018) to calculate the ideal judge strength for disposing of pending cases in certain courts in Delhi.

Sources: Reports No. 120 (1987) and 245 (2014), Law Commission of India; Report No. 85, Standing Committee on Home Affairs (2002); Note for Calculating Required Judge Strength for Subordinate Courts, National Court Management Systems Committee (NCMS) (2016); Imtiyaz Ahmad vs. State of Uttar Pradesh, Supreme Court (2017); PRS.