Karnataka High Court: People, Processes, Pendency

M.V. Sundararaman

Varuni Mohan


Indian page65courts hardly document and publicise pendency figures, though judges and other stakeholders in the administration of justice frequently bemoan the high pendency rates at almost every available opportunity. According to DAKSH, an NGO collecting court-related data, their database contains over 19,39,096 cases that are pending before 21 Indian High Courts, out of which 2,66,631 cases are pending before the High Court of Karnataka.1 There appears to be no relief from the chronic pendency of cases in the High Court of Karnataka despite its impressive disposal rate of nearly 18,000 cases per year.2 Attempts to expedite disposal rates and lessen mounting pendency, such as establishment of permanent Lok Adalats, increasing bench strength, encouraging alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms, enhancing infrastructure of courts, etc. do not seem to have had the desired effect. While judges are heard attributing delays and pendency to the Bar, the Bar has always been quick to respond and attribute delays to the competence of the Bench, to court congestion, the need for more courts, etc. This chapter discusses the current scenario in the High Court of Karnataka in relation to pendency, judges’ workload, the administrative mechanism of case filings and record maintenance, based on available, published data.

Jurisdiction of the High Court of Karnataka

The Indian Constitution has placed the responsibility of administration of justice in the state upon the High Court, which includes supervision of the working of subordinate courts and tribunals within the state. The responsibility is clearly on the High Courts to ensure proper judicial administration within their territory. The provisions of the Constitution and the Karnataka High Court Act, page661961 govern the jurisdiction, procedure, and powers of the judges of the High Court of Karnataka. The High Court wields a variety of powers and exercises vast jurisdiction over almost every area of the law.

Original Jurisdiction

Though the Constitution does not minutely list out the extent of the High Court’s jurisdiction, it is generally recognised that a High Court exercises its primary, original jurisdiction by the issue of writs. Article 226 confers power on the High Court to issue writs for the preservation and enforcement of fundamental rights. The original jurisdiction of the High Court also extends to matters relating to admiralty, probate, matrimonial, and contempt of court cases. It also has full powers to make rules to regulate its business in relation to administration of justice. It can punish for its own contempt.

Appellate Jurisdiction

The High Court’s appellate jurisdiction extends to both civil and criminal matters. On the civil side, it broadly extends to cases tried by courts of civil judges (junior and senior divisions) and district judges. On the criminal side, it extends to matters decided by the Courts of Sessions.

Other Powers

Powers of Superintendence and Transfer

The entire administration of justice in the state vests in the High Court. The High Court’s power of superintendence extends over all subordinate courts and tribunals in the state (except those dealing with armed forces in the state). If the High Court is satisfied that a case pending in a subordinate court involves a substantial question of law as to interpretation of the Constitution, whose determination is necessary for the disposal of the case, it is empowered to deal with that case suo motu. Enormous powers are vested in the High Court to call for the records of any case from subordinate courts and tribunals to satisfy itself about the correctness and legality of the orders passed by them.

Control over Officers and Employees

A whole gamut of functionaries working within a clearly laid out hierarchy operate the administrative set-up of the High Court. Appointments on the administrative side are made by the Chief Justice or such other judge or officer of the High Court as the Chief Justice may direct. The conditions of service are prescribed by rules made by the Chief Justice or another judge or officer of the High Court authorised by the Chief Justice. The administrative expenses of the High Court, including salaries, allowances, and pensions payable to its officers are charged to the Consolidated Fund of India.

Role of the Registry

The administrative set-up of the High Court and its functioning are regulated by the provisions of the Karnataka High Court Act, 1961, with the Registrar General at its helm. Several other functionaries (additional registrars, joint registrars, assistant registrars, etc.) in the hierarchy assist in the Registry’s functioning. The lifecycle of a case has its genesis in the Registry of the High Court. The Registry plays a vital role in ensuring smooth maintenance and transmission of case records, preparation of cause lists, indexation, maintenance of registers, etc. Figure 1 depicts that the Registry is instrumental in the movement, maintenance, and preservation of case files pending before the High Court.

FIGURE 1. Role of High Court Registry in Movement of Files

page67Bench Strength, Vacancies, Appointments, and Transfers

Pendency figures and judge strength have never seemed to tally. A look at the prevailing scenario in the High Court is telling. The data is presented in Table 1.

TABLE 1. Current Status of Judge Strength in the High Court of Karnataka

Approved strength

Current strength

Total strength



Permanent judges



Source: Department of Justice, Government of India. 2015. ‘Vacancy in High Courts’, Department of Justice, available online at http://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/userfiles/Vacancy-(1.11.2015).pdf; http://karnatakajudiciary.kar.nic.in/profiles-sitting-judges.asp (accessed on 16 November 2015).

Evidently, this enormous vacancy — 25 permanent judges and 6 additional judges — has impacted pendency rates in Karnataka.3 Even as the High Court labours to deal with pendency at merely half its capacity, there seems to be no expedition in judicial appointments. Further, there are no clear parameters laid out or publicly available records to show the area/s of expertise of any particular judge of the High Court. Nor is there any publicly available record to show the regularity with which a judge has heard cases or been allocated cases based on areas of his expertise. Judges of High Courts are not prescribed any compulsory training or continuing education. Though the National Judicial Academy has been established with precisely this goal — judicial education and reduction of arrears — the need to frame an annual, compulsory schedule for training High Court judges has never been more urgent.

The absence of compulsory training and the urgent need for a mandatory, annually scheduled continuing education programme tells in many page68ways. Judges learn on the job (about areas of law that they have never before worked on) and depend on their own research methodologies, law clerks, and the Bar for subject-matter inputs. It is not infrequent that cases are posted before Benches which have no expertise or experience in dealing with the subject matter of cases allocated to them as per the roster. This demands that the judge study and accustom himself (in a very short period of time, usually three–four months) to the law and procedure in relation to the new subject. It is also not uncommon that when cases that require substantial hearing are posted a few days before the routine change in roster, they are adjourned for paucity of time to complete the hearing. These situations invariably contribute to the delay in disposal of cases before that Bench and increase pendency. Though these situations are common occurrences, they are hardly discussed in any forum. Figure 2 illustrates such a situation.

FIGURE 2. Progress of Writ Petition No. 54017/18 of 2014


Available data shows substantial pendency in the High Court today. This data points to the urgent need for an immediate and a massive recruitment drive for the High Court. The large number of judges needed to clear/reduce the backlog and the time likely to be taken to complete the appointment are clear indicators for expediting the selection process. To consider one significant factor, every year many vacancies arise through retirement, and sometimes death and transfers also add to this number. As Table 2 shows, between April and October 2016, six judges of the High Court of Karnataka have retired or are due for retirement, bringing down the working strength from 31 to 25.

TABLE 2. Retiring Judges of the High Court of Karnataka



Date of retirement


Justice Pradeep D. Waingankar

10 April 2016


Justice N.K. Patil

2 May 2016


Justice A.V. Chandrashekhara

30 May 2016


Justice Ram Mohan Reddy

6 June 2016


Justice N. Kumar

28 June 2016

Source: High Court of Karnataka.

Transfer of Judges

Judges’ transfer is another issue that stirs up significant debate. Normally the criterion for transfer of a judge from one court to another is never officially disclosed except when a judge is transferred to another court to take charge as Chief Justice or when the conduct of the judge in question is public knowledge. The recent case of Justice C.S. Karnan of the High Court of Madras who suo motu stayed his own transfer order, issued by the Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur on 12 February 2016, is relevant in this context.4

The legality of judges’ transfer has also been examined and discussed by courts. A full Bench of the High Court of Gujarat held that no judge could be transferred without his consent.5 This view was however, reversed by the Supreme Court.6 This issue was also elaborately discussed and the principles governing judges’ transfer was laid down in several decisions of the Supreme Court.7 At present, there are three judges who have been transferred to Karnataka from their state High Courts, namely, Chief Justice Subhro Kamal Mukherjee (Calcutta), Justice Jayant Patel (Gujarat), and Justice Raghvendra Singh Chauhan (Rajasthan). Of judges from Karnataka, Justice Manjula Chellur is the Chief Justice of the High Court of Calcutta, and Justice Huluvadi G. Ramesh was transferred to the High Court of Allahabad. Justice Ramesh’s case is an example which shows judges themselves are sometimes unclear why they have been transferred. On the eve of his transfer, he remarked that the transfer was a result of political vendetta against him and that he was being victimised for his actions.8 This is in stark contrast to the Supreme Court collegium’s current vision of transferring judges for better administration and reducing vacancy.9

Roster System: Periodic Allocation and Reallocation of Work

Under the orders of the Chief Justice, the Registrar (Judicial) periodically publishes a ‘sitting list’. This list assigns subjects/areas to each judge of the High Court effective from a stated date.10 Sadly, this is not a permanent allocation. The sitting list suffers page70vast changes, normally every 8–10 weeks, without any written rule as the basis. Perhaps the main objective of this periodic shuffling is to ensure that all judges deal with most subject matters in all Benches. But the obvious downside to this procedure (in the background of the lifecycle of a case) is that a case is invariably heard by several Benches before it is finally disposed of. Also, whether the expertise of any judge is considered before a particular subject matter is assigned to him in the sitting list is not known.

The news of establishment of the Dharwad and Kalaburagi Benches gave much-needed respite to the residents of these districts. But the establishment of these Benches has also thrown up a few unique situations, adding to the pendency problem. More often than not, hearings are not concluded within the lifecycle of a sitting list, forcing a de novo hearing before a new judge, leading to escalation not only in disposal time but also in legal costs. Figure 3 demonstrates this practical problem.

FIGURE 3. Progress of Civil Miscellaneous Petition No. 228 of 2014

page71Disposal of Cases

‘No one expects a case to be decided overnight. However, difficulty arises when the actual time taken for disposal of the case far exceeds its expected life span and that is when we say there is delay in dispensation of justice.’11 Although Order XX of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 (CPC) broadly prescribes a timeframe for disposal of a civil dispute before a subordinate court,12 no such timeframe is specified under any law for matters pending before High Courts. It is trite that denial of ‘timely justice’ amounts to denial of justice itself. Courts continue to lament over delays in disposals and pendency and its consequence on justice. Timely disposal of cases is essential for maintaining the rule of law and providing access to justice, which is a guaranteed fundamental right.13

In Imtiyaz Ahmad v. State of U.P.,14 the Supreme Court noted:

Dispatch in the decision making process by court is one of the great expectations of the common man from the judiciary. A sense of confidence in the Courts is essential to maintain a fabric of order and liberty for a free people. Delay in disposal of cases would destroy that confidence and do incalculable damage to the society; that people would come to believe that inefficiency and delay will drain even a just judgment of its value; that people who had long been exploited in the small transactions of daily life come to believe that courts cannot vindicate their legal rights against fraud and overreaching; that people would come to believe that the law — in the larger sense cannot fulfil its primary function to protect them and their families in their homes, at their workplace and on the public streets.

The Supreme Court in this case also issued several directions to the Law Commission on pendency and suggested methods to reduce mounting arrears, including creation of additional courts without compromising on the quality of justice rendered. These directions notwithstanding, the effort to contain and reduce pendency does not seem to have borne fruit. A snapshot of the trend and extent of pendency in the High Court of Karnataka is given in Table 3.15

TABLE 3. Pendency in the High Court of Karnataka





Sanctioned strength (Number of working hours per week)

Working strength

(Sanctioned strength minus vacancies and deputation)





























































Source: Law Commission of India. 2014. ‘Arrears and Backlog: Creating Additional Judicial (Wo)manpower’, available online at http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report245.pdf (accessed on 23 March 2016).

page72Similar data available for the period 2013 and 2014 does not depict a better scenario. The average time spent by judges on pending cases is almost 83 hours a week.16 This number takes into account the time spent by a judge on judicial work not only while in court and but also outside. The writing of the judgment or order and deciding a case, often happens after the hearing is concluded, in chambers, outside court. Judges use out-of-court time to review counsels’ arguments, examine evidence, refer to precedents, write judgments, etc.

Though statutes such as the CPC prescribe broad timeframes for certain stages in a civil trial — for filing written statement,17 settlement of issues,18 adjournments,19 judgments,20 etc.— no such time frame, even broad or directory, exists for proceedings before the High Court. Any effort at reducing delays in disposals must first examine how many cases in the system are actually delayed. This, in our view, requires determination of not only a ‘normal’ timeframe for a particular type/category of case but also the time to be spent at each stage within that case, so that anything beyond such a time frame is considered delayed.

Influence and Use of Technology by Judges in Disposal of Cases

Journey of Computerisation in the Karnataka Judiciary

Before computerisation, every judicial process was carried out and documented manually using typewriters and papers were physically indexed and filed. Even case filings and cause list preparation were done manually and case details were physically entered in bulky registers. In 1998, the National Informatics Centre introduced computers in the form of server and non-interactive devices in the High Court.21 UNIX-based operating systems and FoxPlus database were used. In 1999, another milestone was achieved when tracking of cases by entering litigant details, advocate details, and other preliminary details apart from the case numbers was made possible.22 By the end of 1999, cause list generation was computerised. In achieving this, cause lists on a day-to-day basis could be generated effortlessly using available filing data from the server.

Computer Committee: Role in Reducing Pendency

With the objective of ensuring better management of cases, court records and dockets through technology, the Computer Committee was constituted in 1995. The Computer Committee consists of seven judges of the High Court, and is presently headed by Justice Ram Mohan Reddy. All the technical staff act under the guidance of the Computer Committee and are under the control of the Central Project Co-ordinator (Computers), High Court of Karnataka, and the Principal District and Sessions Judge at Districts.

Most bottlenecks identified by judicial commissions and other committees on delays, arrears, and backlogs are sought to be overcome through computerisation and the introduction of a sound judicial management information system in the High Court of Karnataka. Several areas in the administration of the High Court have vastly benefited from this exercise and the use of technology has enabled easy access to information, tracking of pending cases, and movement of case files. In particular, the use of technology has enhanced productivity and reduction of delays in innumerable areas in relation to judicial administration and information management.


The former Chief Justice of India, H.L. Dattu, recently announced that a decision had been taken to ensure that trial of a case does not linger beyond five years. Being conscious of the high pendency before higher courts, he however clarified that an appeal in a higher court ‘may take some time’.23 The staggering pendency and steep delay in disposals established by DAKSH data require to be urgently tackled by adoption of powerful case management techniques. This would also entail the need to effectively harmonise and implement uniform procedural rules for generation of cause lists, admissions, adjournment motions, filings, etc. in all courts. The need for critical legislative interference to streamline procedure before High Courts and introduction of time-bound hearing, filing of written submissions, time-bound pronouncement of judgments, etc. akin to those introduced by recent amendments to the CPC and the Arbitration and Conciliation Act, 1996, has never been greater. Low pendency and speedy despatch of litigation, it can hardly be gainsaid, will not only help immensely boost the credibility of our judicial system but also securing real justice to every litigant approaching our courts.


1. DAKSH. 2016. ‘Karnataka High Court Dashboard’, available online at http://zynata.com/base/src/index.html#/app/zyn_dash?sid=1544&sname=Karnataka%20(WIP)&sdesc=Karnataka%20HC%20Dashboard%20 (accessed on 5 April 2016).

2. Business Standard. 2014. ‘Karnataka High Court Clearing 18,000 Cases a Year’, Business Standard, 26 November.

3. Department of Justice, Government of India. 2015. ‘Vacancy in High Courts’, Department of Justice, available online at http://doj.gov.in/sites/default/files/userfiles/Vacancy-(1.11.2015).pdf (accessed on 16 November 2015).

4. Indian Express. 2016. ‘Justice Karnan “Stays” CJI Order of His Transfer to Calcutta HC’, Indian Express, 14 February.

5. Sankal Chand Himatlal Sheth v. Union of India, 1976 SCC OnLine Guj 48: (1976) 17 Guj LR 1017.

6. Union of India v. Sankalchand Himatlal Sheth, (1977) 4 SCC 193.

7. Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Assn. v. Union of India, (1993) 4 SCC 441; Ashok Reddy v. Union of India, (1994) 2 SCC 303.

8. Chetana Gadiyar. 2015. ‘Influential People Toiled for my Transfer: Huluvadi G Ramesh’, Udayavani English, 14 February.

9. Krishnadas Rajagopal. 2016. ‘Collegium Recommends Transfer of High Court Judges’, Hindu, 14 February.

10. High Court of Karnataka. 2016. ‘High Court Benches Sitting List’, 8 March, available online at http://www.karnatakajudiciary.kar.nic.in/sitting_list.asp (accessed on 31 March 2016).

11. K.G. Balakrishnan. 2007. ‘Delay in Disposal of Cases’: Speech delivered by the Chief Justice of India in China, 6 November, available online at http://www.supremecourtofindia.nic.in/speeches/speeches_2007/delay_in_disposal_of_cases_in_china_on_6.11.2007.pdf (accessed on 26 March 2016).

12. The court is required to pronounce judgment either immediately, or as soon as possible, within 30 days of the conclusion of hearing of the case. If there are exceptional or extraordinary circumstances, the court must fix another date, but within 60 days from the date on which the hearing of the case concluded.

13. Law Commission of India. 2014. ‘Arrears and Backlog: Creating Additional Judicial (Wo)manpower’, available online at http://lawcommissionofindia.nic.in/reports/Report245.pdf (accessed on 23 March 2016).

14. (2012) 2 SCC 688.

15. Law Commission, ‘Arrears and Backlog’.

16. Law Commission, ‘Arrears and Backlog’.

17. Or. VIII R. 1 CPC.

18. Or. XIV CPC.

19. Or. XVII CPC.

20. Or. XX CPC.

21. High Court of Karnataka. 2015. ‘e-Newsletter, January, available online at http://karnatakajudiciary.kar.nic.in/noticeBoard/e-Newsletter-V1.pdf (accessed on 23 March 2016).

22. page74High Court of Karnataka, ‘e-newsletter’.

23. Press Trust of India. 2015. ‘Nearly Three Crore Cases Pending, CJI Says Trial to End within 5 Years’, The Indian Express, 5 April, available online at http://indianexpress.com/article/india/india-others/nearly-three-crore-cases-pending-cji-says-trial-to-end-within-5-years/ (accessed on 31 March 2016).