Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Why judges deserve a salary hike

Compared with lawyers, whether in individual practices or in law firms, India's judges are grossly underpaid

A joint parliamentary panel has suggested doubling the salary of India’s members of Parliament from the current 50,000 per month (apart from allowances). If accepted, this would be the ninth increase in the salary of MPs in 50 years (since 1964) and the fourth in 15 years. While no one begrudges our hard-working MPs increasing their own pay, perhaps it is time for them to consider a salary increase for their brethren in black—the high court and Supreme Court judges.

It is a common refrain that judges in India are underpaid. The Chief Justice of India (CJI) is paid 1 lakh per month, apart from allowances and perks; a judge of the Supreme Court and the chief justice of a high court can expect to make 90,000 per month. A high court judge can expect to make 80,000 a month. When compared with the annual per capita income ( 74,920 as of 2013-14), these may seem like substantially large amounts.

However, when compared with lawyers, whether in individual practices or in law firms, there is no dispute that judges are grossly underpaid.

No reliable study of senior advocates’ fees has been conducted, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that senior advocates at the Supreme Court charge at least 1 lakh per hearing, going up all the way up to 20 lakh or more depending on the experience and expertise of the senior counsel. In effect, senior advocates make within the course of a hearing what judges make in a whole month, if not more.

The salaries of high court and Supreme Court judges were initially fixed in Schedule II of the Constitution and could only be increased by a constitutional amendment. Since 1986, after the 54th Amendment of the Constitution, they are governed by parliamentary law, namely the High Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1954, and the Supreme Court Judges (Salaries and Conditions of Service) Act, 1958.

Since India became a republic, high court and Supreme Court judges’ salaries have increased only thrice in 65 years.

The salaries of judges were roughly doubled in 1986, tripled in 1998 and tripled once again in 2009 (with retrospective effect from 2006).

While it would seem that the increases have been substantial, if somewhat infrequent, what is surprising is that salaries of judges have not kept pace with inflation and when adjusted for inflation, Supreme Court and high court judges actually make less now than what they did in the 1950s.

This view was expressed by senior advocates just before the previous raise in judicial salaries in 2008, and is now confirmed by data, even after the increase in salaries.

To compare the value of a rupee in the 1950s to the value of a rupee today, Siddharth Singh, an economist and researcher with the Centre for Research on Energy Security at The Energy and Resources Institute, has prepared a composite inflation index for us on the basis of government data on inflation, taking multiple sources together. We have used this composite index to compare the value of the rupee across the years from 1957-58 (the first year for which data was available) to the current date.

Compare this with the fact that in this time period, there have been six Pay Commissions that have revised salaries for central government officials, keeping in view inflation, and as mentioned earlier, the salaries of MPs have been increased no fewer than eight times.

If we compare the difference between the salaries that judges, MPs and secretary-level officials of the government should have got if their salaries just kept pace with inflation, and what they actually got, we see that the increases for MPs have kept well ahead of inflation while judges and secretaries’ salaries have not.

However, if we keep 1998 as the baseline, we find that the salaries of MPs, judges and secretary-level officials have actually kept pace with inflation, thanks to the massive hikes.

Even then, the salaries of MPs have increased at a much higher rate than those of judges or secretary-level officials in the government.

To be fair, the salaries of judges and MPs are buttressed by fairly substantial allowances, including a “reasonable" travel allowance, a car with up to 200l of fuel per month, and a “sumptuary allowance" of between 12,000 and 20,000 for high court judges and the CJI.

In addition, high court and Supreme Court judges and MPs are also entitled to the perk of free housing.

MPs, in contrast, have a “constituency allowance of 40,000 per month, are allowed “office expenses" of 40,000 a month, and a “daily allowance" to attend Parliament or committee meetings of 2,000 per month.

In the 1950s, the judges’ much higher initial salaries than the MPs’ were indeed clearly aimed at attracting the best talent from the bar. But over the years, given inflation and the increasingly lucrative nature of private practice at the bar, the salaries on offer seem to have become a deterrent rather than an attraction to take a post on the bench.

Inadequate judicial salaries, especially when compared with those that lawyers are earning, deter many young lawyers from taking up a seat on the bench when offered. The most productive (and highest earning) years of a lawyer’s life are usually between the ages of 50 and 70.

While the burden on a high court or Supreme Court judge is just as much as that on a lawyer of the same age, they have to make do with a small fraction of the remuneration. It is perhaps the right time for the government of the day to take up judicial salaries as a serious issue that affects the quality of the justice delivery mechanism.

Though there is a proposal to increase the judicial strength of high courts by 25%, it is likely to only increase the number of vacancies as the collegium and the government have never been able to fill up more than 700 posts in the high courts.

At present, there are 371 vacancies in high courts out of a sanctioned strength of 1,071, i.e about 35% of posts of judges of the high court are currently vacant. Even accounting for the delay in appointments due to the hearings in the National Judicial Appointments Commission case, this is an unacceptably high figure. It is also perhaps a reflection of the fact that the post of a high court judge requires a monetary sacrifice so large that it deters talented and honest lawyers from taking it up.

Alok Prasanna Kumar is a research fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.

Vidhi Centre’s Titiksha Mohanty, Vinitika Vij and Kunal Kanodia contributed to this story.

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