Aday before he begins his term as the 43rd chief justice of India (CJI), T.S. Thakur on Wednesday outlined a plan of action for the year ahead, identifying key areas the Supreme Court will focus on.

Thakur succeeds H.L. Dattu, whose term as CJI ended on Wednesday.

Thakur said the judiciary had an onerous responsibility in making appointments to the Supreme Court and the high courts after the apex court in October struck down a constitutional amendment that sought to give the executive a say in the selection of top judges.

“Striking down of a constitution amendment that aimed at reforming a system... whatever the jurisprudential basis may be... It has made the job of superior judges so much more onerous and difficult," Thakur said.

“People now feel that the Supreme Court has taken upon itself to select judges; let them do so. But let them come up to our expectations. This is a major challenge," he said at a farewell for Dattu.

These are his first comments on the issue since the Supreme Court on 16 October ruled that both the Constitution (Ninety-ninth Amendment) Act, 2014, and the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) Act, 2014, were unconstitutional.

As the next head of the judiciary, and consequently the head of the collegium—a group of senior apex court judges that will receommend judicial appointments—Thakur’s role will be significant.

The apex court now has four vacancies to fill to reach its full strength of 31 judges. Another judge, justice Vikramajit Sen, is set to retire on 30 December. More than 400 vacancies in the high courts remain to be filled.

On the issue of pending cases, Thakur spoke of a gestation period for cases before they are ready to be heard. According to him, defining the gestation period would reduce case arrears. “We can announce that 2016 will be the year for clearing arrears," Thakur said.

Thakur estimated that some 30 million cases are pending across various courts.

“The court should ensure that cases don’t remain pending for the court’s fault. So, if justice Thakur is focusing on cases which are ready to be heard, where parties have fulfilled all requirements, then it’s a good thing," said Alok Prasanna Kumar, head of the judicial reforms wing at Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, a think tank.

Thakur also spoke of optimally utilizing judicial academies being set up in different states for training judicial officers as well as lawyers.

Thakur said that since allocation of funds for these training facilities were at the cost of competing needs like potable water, roads and other requirements, utilizing them was important.

Thakur asked the Bar Council of India, which sets the standards for legal education, to ensure that law students from all law colleges have access to facilities like well-stocked libraries and other benefits.

The chief justice also spoke about improving judicial infrastructure across states.

“It’s good to have these things on his agenda, but given the fact that he has a tenure of about a year, I don’t know how much he will be able to see them through," Kumar said. “These are the larger issues plaguing the institution, which require deep and serious capacity building at the institutional level. These measures will require at least five years to take effect."

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