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Data: Steep decline in the Supreme Court’s disposal rate in the last few years

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Pendency in the Indian judicial system has been a cause for concern for many years now. Pendency is plaguing the judicial system at all the levels of the judiciary. Data of the last 10 years indicates that while COVID-19 affected the disposal, the disposal has been declining even before the onset of COVID-19. 

Indian Judicial System is fraught with massive pendency of cases. The pendency is observed across all the levels of the judiciary – the Supreme Court, High Courts, District & Subordinate Courts, etc. An increasing number of new cases are filed every year, judicial process delays, and understaffing in courts, are among the reasons cited for this situation. 

As per an update provided in Rajya Sabha in July 2022, the strength of High Court Judges in the country is 722 as against the sanctioned strength of 1108. In the case of District and Sub-ordinate courts, the working strength is 19,289 as against the sanctioned strength of 24,631. Even in the case of the Supreme Court, 3 positions are vacant, and it will soon be four once the current Chief Justice of India (CJI) retires on 26 August 2022. 

As per data available on the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), more than 59.56 lakh cases are pending across all the High Courts in the country as of 24 August 2022. Even in the case of the Supreme Court, more than 71 thousand cases were pending as of 01 August 2022. 

In this story, we look at the trends in the disposal and pendency of cases in the Apex Court and look at the initiatives to reduce the backlog of cases in the Supreme Court (SC). 

Declining Trend in the Disposal of Cases by Supreme Court 

As per an update provided in the recently concluded Monsoon session of Lok Sabha, there were 58,519 pending cases at the beginning of 2012.  Over the next 10-year period, the number of pending cases at the end of the year has seen a varying trend with an increasing trend in the last few years. This is influenced by the number of new cases filed every year as the number of cases disposed in a year. 

Over the last three years i.e., 2019 to 2021, the number of pending cases at the beginning of the year showed an increasing trend. There were 65 thousand pending cases pending with the Supreme Court at the beginning of 2021. This is a result of low disposal in 2020 when only 20,670 cases were disposed, which is just over half of the number of cases disposed in the previous year of 2019. 

It ought to be noted that in view of the COVID-19 pandemic, Supreme Court did not function for a few months while it turned online for a sustained period. Even the number of new cases filed in the Supreme Court in 2020 was less than during the previous year of 2019. 

However, even prior to the onset of the pandemic, there is a declining year-on-year trend in the number of cases being disposed by the Supreme Court. There was also a decline in the number of new cases filed with the Supreme Court in the years prior to the pandemic. 

Major fall in the Supreme Court’s disposal rate 

As per the response provided in the aforementioned Lok Sabha answer on 05 August 2022, the Supreme Court’s disposal rate was 37.77 in 2021, a slight improvement over 2020 when it was 34.53%. 

This Disposal Rate is derived as a percentage of cases disposed by the end of the year compared to the number of pending cases at the beginning of the year. Over the years, there has been a steep decline in the disposal rate. In 2012, 68.7 thousand cases were disposed as against 58.5 thousand cases at the beginning of 2012. During the 10-year period, the disposal rate peaked in 2014, with 92.7 thousand cases disposed as against 66.3 thousand pending cases at the beginning of 2014, with a disposal rate of close to 140%.  Since then, there has been a declining trend, with a more steep decline since 2017. As observed earlier, lower numbers in disposal of cases have resulted in a decline in disposal rate. 

Disposal rate of the SC is much lower when all the cases for trial are considered

The earlier disposal rate of the SC is based on the disposal of cases compared to the number of pending cases at the beginning of the year.   However, if the total number of cases up for trial in a particular year is considered (including new cases filed in a particular year), then the disposal rate of the SC goes down further. 

The total number of cases up for a trial has reduced in recent years because of the decline in the number of new cases filed in the SC. In 2012, a total of 1.35 lakh cases were up for trial in the SC. Since 2016, there is a decline in the number of cases up for trial. In 2020, there were 85.7 thousand cases that were up for a trial with Supreme Court. 

Despite a fall in the number of cases for trial, there is a decline in the disposal rate. This Disposal rate is calculated as a percentage of cases disposed compared to the number of cases up for trial in that year. With this calculation, the disposal rate was 50.7% in 2012. During the 10-year period, it peaked in 2014 at 59.6%. Since then, there is a steady decline.  In the COVID-19-impacted 2020, only about 24% of the cases that were up for trial were disposed by the Apex Court.  The data on the number of new cases filed in 2021 is not yet available. 

As the data indicates, despite a fall in the number of new cases filed in the Supreme Court, there is a decline in the disposal of the cases, resulting in a lower disposal rate in the last few years. One hopes that the emphasis on Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR), could reduce the burden on courts, especially the commercial disputes. 

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