Like with every other sector, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the working of the courts in the year 2020. The impact was more pronounced in lower courts, where facilities to conduct virtual hearings were also not adequate. Data from the NCRB’s CII report for 2020 indicates that courts disposed 16.4 lakh cases in 2020 (both IPC & SLL crimes) compared to 28 lakh cases disposed in 2019.
COVID-19 severely hampered the functioning of judicial systems around the globe. In India, several steps were taken to ensure the safety of the lawyers, litigants and the general visiting public including fewer physical hearings, adjustment of operations, and closure of courts. But these measures meant that the normal functioning of the courts was affected and hence reducing the number of cases disposed in 2020.
India’s criminal justice system is known for its acute backlog and pendency crisis. Despite an increasing trend in the disposal of cases in most years, the pendency of cases has increased due to the number of new cases outpacing the number of disposed cases. The data on pending investigations and trials published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) has revealed an increasing trend in the backlog or the pendency rate with India’s courts and police. In addition to NCRB, the National Judicial Data Grid also highlights the pendency of cases in high courts, district and taluka courts of the country.
Reportedly, since the COVID-19 pandemic, the disposal rates of several courts around the country dipped further. In this story we focus on the impact of the pandemic on trends in court disposal of cases in India in the year 2020, taking a cue from Crime in India Reports released by NCRB over the years, the latest one being released recently for the year 2020.
Courts reduced operations and adopted virtual mode amidst COVID-19
The journey of e-Governance initiatives in court administration started mainly in the mid-1990s and was further enhanced after the e-Courts Project was launched as a part of the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) in 2006. However, the sudden and unexpected advent of the COVID-19 crisis provided a great fillip in bringing about a rapid transformation in the manner of court administration in the country.
On 13 March 2020, the Supreme Court issued a notification declaring that the Court will function at a reduced capacity and suspended physical hearings since the latter half of March 2020 in view of the advisories issued by the Government of India and the World Health Organization (WHO) against mass public gatherings. The Court pruned its operations at two levels. First, the Court was now only taking up ‘urgent matters’. Second, entry to the courtroom is restricted to a select group of people.
Soon thereafter, on 14 March 2020, the apex court issued a slew of measures meant to limit crowding of the Courts. For instance, lawyers and litigants can request the Registry to not list their matters till such time the pandemic-related restrictions are eased. At the same time, the Supreme Court encouraged the electronic filing of documents and participation in proceedings via videoconferencing. Nevertheless, no official notification has been issued in this regard to date.
On 22 March 2020, the Court decided to reduce its functioning even further. On the same day, the Court also instituted a bench to hear urgent matters. These decisions come amid the deployment of more stringent measures by the executive to tackle COVID-19.
On 06 April 2020, the Supreme Court granted legal sanctity to video conference under Article 142 of the Indian Constitution. High Courts were also given the authority to work out detailed modalities suitable for adopting video conferencing technologies.
Since mid-March 2020, the Indian courts were reportedly operating at a reduced capacity, to prevent the spread of the virus. It was only on 30 August 2020, that the Supreme Court decided to open up its premises for limited physical hearings, on an experimental basis. In a brief two-page notification the Court required counsels and clerks seeking physical hearings to obtain a special hearing pass and follow COVID-19 specific sanitary and health guidelines.
On 06 March 2021, the Supreme Court announced that it would begin hybrid physical hearings. The current functioning of Courts has returned to resume physical hearings for some cases, while also maintaining hybrid and virtual forms of judicial administration.
All these measures at the Supreme Court concerned High Courts and the lower courts meant that their functioning was severely affected. The worst affected of all were the lower courts where adequate facilities for video conferencing are not on par.
Quantum of cases disposed by the courts declines significantly during COVID-19
Taking a cue from the NCRB Crime in India Reports, we looked at the disposal of cases by the courts for select IPC (Indian Penal Code) crimes over the last few years.
In 2019, a total of 14.04 lakh cases registered under the IPC were disposed by the various courts. This number fell to 8.65 lakh in 2020, a reduction of 38%. In the case of SLL (Special & Local Laws) crimes, the court disposal fell from 13.95 lakh in 2019 to 7.82 lakh in 2020, a reduction of 44%. The pendency also increased from 88.9% in 2019 to 93.8% in 2020, in the case of IPC crimes. On the other hand, the pendency also increased from 83.3% in 2019 to 91.3% in 2020, in the case of SLL crimes. Overall, the disposal decreased by 41%.
The fall in disposal was witnessed across all major crimes
For the selected major crimes, the trend in court disposal of cases has been relatively stable over the past few years. However, for the year 2020, the decline in court disposal of cases has been significant than in previous years.
For instance, for theft cases, the number of cases disposed by the courts has reduced each year by a small margin, except for 2020 – where it declined from 102,027 disposed cases in 2019 to 49,241 disposed cases in 2020, a drop of more than 50%.
Similarly, with crimes like murder, hit and run, rape, kidnapping and others, the quantum of cases disposed during 2020 is significantly lower than the previous year (2019).
In the case of murder, the disposal numbers came down from 17,062 in 2019 to 10,492 in 2020 – while during the previous years, the decline was relatively smaller.
In the case of hit & run cases as well, the disposal numbers came down from 18,002 in 2019 to 10,368 in 2020 – in contrast with relatively stable trends in the past years.
Crimes like rape, kidnapping and abduction also display a similar pattern. For rape cases, the disposal numbers came down from 17,109 in 2019 to 9,898 in 2020. For kidnapping and abduction cases, the disposal numbers came down from 16,625 in 2019 to 9,785 in 2020.
For cases of sexual harassment, the disposal numbers almost halved from 8,627 in 2019 to 4,441 in 2020. In the case of dowry deaths, the disposal came down from 3,589 in 2019 to 2,103 in 2020. The only exception to this trend was the cases related to human trafficking where 311 cases were disposed in 2020 by the courts compared to 316 in 2019.
Pendency rate increases significantly in 2020, as compared to previous years
In the following chart, we look at the pendency percentage of select IPC (Indian Penal Code) crimes over the last few years.
For the selected major crimes, the trends in pendency rate have been relatively stable or increasing marginally over the past few years. For most of the important crimes, the pendency rate was hovering around the 90% mark for a few years now. However, for the year 2020, the rise in pendency rate is more significant than the previous years.
For theft cases, the pendency rate increased from 90.9% to 92.4% in 3 years (1 percentage point increase between 2017 to 2019), however, it increased by almost 3 percentage points from 92.4% in 2019 to 95.5% in 2020.
For hit and run cases, the pendency percentage increased from 87.9% to 90.2% in 3 years (2 percentage point increase between 2017 to 2019), however, it increased by almost 4 percentage points from 90.2% in 2019 to 94.7% in 2020.
For dowry death cases, the pendency percentage increased from 90.6% to 92.8% in 3 years (2 percentage point increase between 2017 to 2019), however, it increased by almost 4 percentage points from 92.8% in 2019 to 96% in 2020.
For cases of sexual harassment, the pendency percentage increased from 89.1% to 90.7% in 3 years (2 percentage point increase between 2017 to 2019), however, it increased by almost 5 percentage points from 90.7% in 2019 to 95.5% in 2020.
Crimes like rape, kidnapping and abduction also display a similar pattern. For instance, the pendency rate between 2019 and 2020 increased from 93.2% to 96.3% for kidnapping and abduction, 89.5% to 94.2% for rape, and so on.
COVID-19 exacerbated an already dismal situation
The trends in court disposal of major IPC crimes have not been encouraging over the years in themselves with over 90% pendency. However, the quantum of disposal fell further down in 2020, more swiftly than the previous years. In a similar fashion, the rate of pendency trends was registering small increases or relative stability over the past few years. However, in 2020, the rate of pendency increased by higher percentage points as compared to previous years.
The onset of COVID-19 caused a variety of hindrances that resulted in the reduced capacity of courts to dispose cases effectively in 2020, owing to fewer physical hearings, adjustment of operations, and closure of courts. While the courts have quickly virtual modes to administer justice, the effectiveness of virtual and hybrid modes of judicial administration in reducing pendency and increasing the quantum of case disposal is yet to be seen. The data for the year 2021 could be a good indicator of where things would go in the hybrid mode and its efficacy. One of the earlier stories highlights in detail the opportunities and challenges associated with the virtual court proceedings in the Indian context.