Civil judge exams in India: Vacant posts, delayed selection process and anxious aspirants

We examine the failure to conduct judiciary exams in a timely manner, delayed announcement of results and how these things are affecting judiciary aspirants.
civil judge exams
civil judge exams

The Supreme Court recently directed the Haryana government to promptly fill 175 vacancies for junior civil judges in the State's subordinate judiciary.

As per the plea before the apex court, 241 of these posts are lying vacant. However, they have not been advertised due to differences between the State government and the High Court on the manner of holding examinations.

Vacancies in the lower judiciary is not an issue limited to Haryana. According to an answer in the Rajya Sabha on August 3, district and subordinate courts across the country have around 5,388 vacancies out of 25,246 sanctioned posts.

And the burgeoning number of vacancies is certainly not helping with the pendency of 4.4 crore cases before the lower courts.

District and subordinate courts across the country have around 5,388 vacancies out of 25,246 sanctioned posts.

Efforts to address the problem reveal that various states have distinct procedures of appointment and, consequently, face unique challenges when it comes to filling up vacancies in the subordinate courts.

In this article, we examine some of the issues that cause these vacancies - from the failure to conduct civil judge exams in a timely manner to delayed announcement of results - as well as how these things are affecting judiciary aspirants.

How judiciary exams are conducted

Over the years, the judicial services has emerged as one of the career options for law graduates. Every state conducts its separate judicial services exam.

As per Article 234 of the Constitution, persons other than district judges are appointed to the judicial services by the State's Governor, in consultation with the State Public Service Commission and the concerned High Court.

In Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala and Rajasthan, the responsibility of conducting these examinations rests with the respective High Courts. In other states like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu etc, the State Public Service Commission organises these examinations.

The judicial services exam consists of a Preliminary Examination with multiple choice questions on the topics of General Knowledge, English and Law. This is followed by a Mains Examination covering various legal areas. Successful candidates face a personal interview to evaluate their suitability. Final selection depends on the Mains and Interview performance, with Preliminary Exam scores sometimes being considered. After selection, candidates undergo training at judicial academies before becoming judges in subordinate courts.

Specific procedures for judicial services exams in India may vary among states, since each state conducts its own process to recruit judges for subordinate courts.

Rising aspirants, limited vacancies

Even as the number of aspirants writing these exams continues to rise every year, the number of positions remains limited.

In the 2023 examinations, Uttar Pradesh held its exam in February, with a total of 79,565 applicants filling out the forms. 50,837 of them took the preliminary exams for 303 available seats. Likewise, in Bihar, which conducted its preliminary exam in June, 17,819 aspirants appeared for just 155 positions. In Uttarakhand, approximately 13,000 aspirants appeared for just 15 seats. In Tamil Nadu, a total of 12,037 aspirants appeared for a mere 50 seats.

Uttar Pradesh held its exam in February. 50,837 of 79,565 applicants took the preliminary exams for 303 available seats.

In 2020, when Bihar organized the exam for 221 seats, approximately 15,000 students appeared. Similarly, in Uttar Pradesh, for 610 seats, more than 60,000 students sat for the preliminary exams.

Similarly, when Delhi conducted the PCSJ exams the previous year, approximately 15,000 students took the preliminary exam for only 123 positions. In 2019, about 10,000 candidates sat for the exam, which had 50 available seats.

Around 16,000 aspirants appeared for just 122 seats in the Maharashtra judiciary exam for 2022.

Another issue that has cropped up is that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many states did not conduct exams for two years. Meanwhile, the number of law graduates aspiring to join the judiciary increased.

Irregular conduct of exams and delayed results

A pressing issue for judiciary aspirants is the irregularity with which the state-level examinations are conducted, even when there are vacant positions in lower courts. Many states hold these exams after long gaps of 3-4 years. For instance, in Uttar Pradesh, the most recent exam was conducted in 2023, four years after the previous one was held in 2019. In Haryana, the examination was last held in 2021, three years after the previous edition in 2018.

Another concern pertains to the delay in announcing results at each stage and completing the entire selection process within a year. In some states, this process takes more than a year to conclude. This not only causes anxiety among aspirants, but also squanders their valuable time, during which they could have prepared for other exams or made alternative career plans.

The results for the Bihar judiciary exam held in 2020 were only announced in 2022. Similarly, the result for the Maharashtra judiciary exam held in 2020 was declared in 2022.

Such discrepancies have prompted High Courts to take up the issue in the past. In 2011, the Supreme Court in the case of Sanjeet Singh v. High Court of Delhi had directed the Delhi High Court to conduct the judiciary examination twice a year and declare the final results within three months from the date of the main exam.

However, for the Delhi Judicial Services (DJS) exam in 2011, the main exam took place only in June 2012, and the final results were not declared until February 2013.

No grievance committee/portal to address issues

Another issue is the lack of a dedicated portal or committee to address any issues that may arise during the examination process.

When problems like rejected application forms or delayed result announcements occur, students often struggle to find the appropriate channels for resolution, as official websites offer little guidance.

After the final results are published, in many cases, unsuccessful aspirants resort to filing Right to Information (RTI) requests to access their answer sheets or to obtain other information, which can be time-consuming and often pointless.

In the absence of a well-defined mechanism for redressing grievances, candidates are compelled to resort to the courts to solve any issues arising from the examination process.

Supreme Court intervention

Despite efforts by the courts to intervene by setting appointment deadlines and proposing a uniform nationwide recruitment policy, precious little has changed.

In the case of Malik Mazhar v. Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission 2008, the Supreme Court underscored the significance of establishing a designated timetable for the conduct of judicial service examinations.

It emphasized that conducting examinations within a predetermined timeframe is a clear indication of an efficient, transparent and accountable recruitment process.

The Mazhar case also stipulated the necessity of establishing an appropriate zone of consideration in which candidates for each stage of the examination would be shortlisted.

A decade later, in 2018, the Supreme Court took up the issue of vacancies in the subordinate judiciary suo motu. The Court directed the High Courts/state governments responsible for recruitments to reveal the following information:

“1. The dates on which the recruitment process/processes for the two categories of posts i.e. “Higher Judicial Service” and “Lower Judicial Service” had been initiated and is/are expected to be completed and appointments made;

2. Whether the time taken or likely to be taken is beyond the Schedule formulated by this Court in Malik Mazhar Sultan (3) & Anr. Vs. U.P. Public Service Commission & Ors. If the time taken has exceeded the Schedule fixed by this Court the reasons therefor be furnished by the Registries of such High Courts/concerned authorities of the State where the recruitment is done through the Public Service Commission(s) which are in default;

3. Whether the time expected to be taken to complete the on-going process/processes can be shortened and the process/processes completed before the time-schedule spelt out in Malik Mazhar Sultan (supra) which time-schedule this Court would understand to be indicating the outer time limit and not the minimum period for completion;

4. Number of vacancies that have occurred both in the Civil Judge cadre and the Higher Judicial Service cadre since the date of issuance of notification advertising the vacancies till the date on which the process/processes is/are expected to be complete;

5. Whether the infrastructure and man-power available in the different States is adequate if all the posts that are borne in the cadre are to be filled up.”

While hearing the plea again in 2019, then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi had remarked,

“If any High Court can’t do it (fill in vacancies), we will do it. We will have a centralized system. If you don’t want us to do it, then you do it. You will be in our constant gaze. We want judges in place.”

Speaking to Bar & Bench, Senior Advocate Vijay Hansaria, who has worked on cases relating to judicial vacancies, remarked,

"The district judiciary is the foundation of the justice delivery system where about 4.5 crore cases are pending, meaning thereby 9 crore people are in contact with the judiciary, presuming there are 2 parties in each case."

Hansaria, who was amicus curiae in the Malik Mazhar case, says that the heavy caseload in the subordinate judiciary is a direct result of large number of vacancies.

Despite a calendar for filling vacancies being fixed way back in 2007 by the Supreme Court in the Malik Mazhar case, 25% posts are vacant at all times, Hansaria remarked. He added,

"Secondly, the infrastructure needs to be strengthened for which the Central Government must make sufficient funds available. As per the statement of the Law Minister in the Parliament, about 700 crores is the annual grant for infrastructure of subordinate Judiciary, which does not meet even the total requirement of one State. Thirdly, the judges of the District Judiciary, must also have the facilities of law clerks as has been given to the Supreme Court and the High Court judges."

Senior Advocate Vijay Hansaria
Senior Advocate Vijay Hansaria

Anxious aspirants left in the lurch

We also spoke to several aspirants from different states to gain insight into how the flawed selection process affects them.

A recent incident in Madhya Pradesh, where a judiciary aspirant tragically took her own life after she failed the exam, highlights the gravity of the issue.

Shyamali from Odhisa reveals how the process can affect one's mental health. She says,

"I graduated in 2019 and wanted to take the Odisha Judiciary exam, but I couldn't because I wasn't 23 years old. COVID-19 delayed things, and the notification finally came in December 2021. The entire examination process took a year. I felt confident and well-prepared, but despite a good performance in the main and interview rounds, I didn't make the top ranks. It was hard to accept, and it has taken a toll on my mental health. I used to derive happiness from various things, but now it's been a struggle."

Shailja Shankar Mishra from West Bengal says that aspirants often have to relocate to increase their chances of qualifying the exam.

"The challenges faced are typical for competitive exam aspirants. Firstly, there is a disparity in examination schedules among different states. Additionally, infrastructural issues lead to a lack of internet access in certain areas, forcing candidates (including myself) to leave their homes in search of better preparation locations. Financial constraints pose another obstacle, and safety concerns can arise when candidates relocate to unfamiliar places for their studies. Moreover, access to quality tuition is often limited," he reveals.

Sakshi Sharma from Delhi says that preparation stress was a contributing factor to her clinical depression.

"I began preparing for judicial services in 2018, attempted exams for various states and faced the challenge of COVID-19 lockdown. This, along with personal circumstances and preparation stress, led to clinical depression. I later discovered the IBPS SO (Law Officer) exam, prepared for it for four months, and fortunately, I qualified. I'm now working as a legal officer in a public sector bank. While my dream of becoming a judicial officer didn't come true, I have found contentment in my current role. My advice to applicants is that judicial services are not the only option, and sometimes destiny plays a role."

Aadya from Uttar Pradesh shares,

"I dedicated four years, from 2019 to 2023, preparing for the judiciary exams. I left my job in 2020 to focus on preparation, starting from scratch in 2023. The main challenge with judiciary preparation is the irregularity and unpredictability of exams in Hindi-speaking states, leading to long waiting periods. Additionally, delays occur due to legal challenges in the exam process, often related to poor paper setting. The uncertainty can be mentally taxing, especially when states conduct exams swiftly after announcing them. Maintaining discipline and mental balance during these waiting periods is challenging, and success depends on one's ability to do so. Many aspirants find it difficult to cope with these circumstances."

Another issue is the inconsistency in paper checking, Anukul from Delhi added.

"I filed a writ petition because my objective questions in the mains paper were marked incorrectly, but it's challenging to get a fair hearing because the High Court has significant authority in these matters. Overall, these exams are riddled with problems, and even bright students often end up losing their self-esteem and morale due to the process."

Another aspirant from Delhi, Nivedita Pandit, says,

"I dedicated the last 2-3 years to preparing for PCSJ, but as time went on, I started feeling pressure from my family and friends. Being a 24/25-year-old female and staying at home for extended periods wasn't well-received...This constant focus on my exams took a toll on my mental health. Additionally, the fact that some states don't release exam notifications annually added to the pressure. Moreover, the frequent changes in exam patterns by the authorities made the preparation process even more challenging."

Jatin Ingulkar from Maharashtra points to the irregular release of notifications and advertisements at certain times.

"It forces aspirants to looking for alternatives and it becomes difficult to find one due to a gap in their CV owing to the preparation for the examination and not being able to commit to a place as they have to come back and start preparing once the notification is out. Setting up a streamlined structure of notifications will help aspirants to plan their commitments priorly which will not affect their careers."

With respect to the Mains exams for the Kerala lower judiciary, Aishwarya Unnikrishnan says,

"The High Court doesn't publish the marks scored in each paper or how much a candidate scored in comparison to other candidates. This should be done to provide candidates with a better understanding of their performance and to help them improve for future exams."

Balaji Kannan, another aspiring candidate preparing for the Tamil Nadu judiciary exam, says that the Madras High Court has recently taken the initiative to conduct Civil Judge exams annually. Speaking about the local challenges aspirants in the State face, he says,

"Numerous Judiciary aspirants, many of whom come from non-legal backgrounds, often abandon their pursuit due to the challenges they encounter during preparation. These challenges include low income from internships or junior positions in nearby offices, lack of subsidies or stipends for Judiciary aspirants (unlike UPSC aspirants who receive government support), family pressures and issues related to caste and class in rural Tamil Nadu, which contribute to the emergence of Kangaroo courts."

Former civil judge Bharat Chugh, who secured the first rank when he wrote the Delhi judiciary exams back in his day, reflected on what needs to change.

 Bharat Chugh
Bharat Chugh

Apart from sorting out the issues related to delays in conduct of examinations, Chugh calls for a revamp of the syllabus of the exam. Applied Ethics is an important part that should be implemented in the exam, he suggests. He adds that there should be a greater focus on developing skills related to problem-solving, administration and management, in addition to traditional legal knowledge.

"We live in an age where information is aplenty. With cutting edge legal databases and generative AI models, legal research and writing (to a great extent) is not the problem anymore. It’s the application of mind to the truly tricky problems of interpretation/grey areas, appreciation of evidence and people/court management and administration that would set apart the next league of judges."

Instead of knowing more, the emphasis should now shift to be able to harness information from various sources and use it to improve the quality of decision-making, he said.

"A few states are already doing much better in this respect than the others but a greater focus and shift to practical problem solving (rather than theoretical questions)," he added.

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