Yesterday, Parliament passed a Bill to increase the number of judges in the Supreme Court from 30 to 33 (excluding the Chief Justice of India). The Bill was introduced in view of increasing pendency of cases in the Supreme Court. In 2012, the Supreme Court approved the Scheme of National Court Management System to provide a framework for case management. The scheme estimated that with an increase in literacy, per capita income, and population, the number of new cases filed each year may go up to 15 crore over the next three decades, which will require at least 75,000 judges. In this blog, we analyse the pendency of cases at all three levels of courts, i.e. the Supreme Court, the Highs Courts, and the subordinate courts, and discuss the capacity of these courts to dispose of cases.
Pendency in courts has increased over the years; 87% of all pending cases are in subordinate courts
Sources: Court News, 2006, Supreme Court of India; National Data Judicial Grid accessed on August 7, 2019; PRS.
Overall, the pendency of cases has increased significantly at every level of the judicial hierarchy in the last decade. Between 2006 and now, there has been an overall increase of 22% (64 lakh cases) in the pendency of cases across all courts. As of August 2019, there are over 3.5 crore cases pending across the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the subordinate courts. Of these, subordinate courts account for over 87.3% pendency of cases, followed by 12.5% pendency before the 24 High Courts. The remaining 0.2% of cases are pending with the Supreme Court. The primary reason for growing pendency of cases is that the number of new cases filed every year has outpaced the number of disposed of cases. This has resulted in a growing backlog of cases.
In High Courts and subordinate courts, over 32 lakh cases pending for over 10 years
Sources: National Data Judicial Grid accessed on August 7, 2019; Court News, 2006-17, Supreme Court of India; PRS.
In the High Courts, over 8.3 lakh cases have been pending for over 10 years. This constitutes 19% of all pending High Court cases. Similarly, in the subordinate courts, over 24 lakh cases (8%) have been pending for over 10 years. Overall, Allahabad High Court had the highest pendency, with over seven lakh cases pending as of 2017.
Despite high pendency, some High Courts have managed to reduce their backlog. Between 2006 and 2017, pendency of cases reduced the most in Madras High Court at a rate of 26%, followed by Bombay High Court at 24%. Conversely, during the same period, the pendency of cases doubled in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, and increased by 2.5 times in Karnataka High Court.
As a result of pendency, number of under-trials in prison is more than double that of convicts
Sources: Prison Statistics in India, 2015, National Crime Record Bureau; PRS.
Over the years, as a result of growing pendency of cases for long periods, the number of undertrials (accused awaiting trial) in prisons has increased. Prisons are running at an over-capacity of 114%. As of 2015, there were over four lakh prisoners in jails. Of these, two-thirds were undertrials (2.8 lakh) and the remaining one-third were convicts.
The highest proportion of undertrials (where the number of inmates was at least over 1,000) were in J&K (85%), followed by Bihar (82%). A total of 3,599 undertrials were detained in jails for more than five years. Uttar Pradesh had the highest number of such undertrials (1,364) followed by West Bengal (294).
One interesting factor to note is that more criminal cases are filed in subordinate courts than in High Courts and Supreme Court. Of the cases pending in the subordinate courts (which constitute 87% of all pending cases), 70% of cases were related to criminal matters. This increase in the pendency of cases for long periods over the years may have directly resulted in an increase in the number of undertrials in prisons. In a statement last year, the Chief Justice of India commented that the accused in criminal cases are getting heard after serving out their sentence.
Vacancies in High Courts and Subordinate Courts affect the disposal of cases
Sources: Court News, 2006-17, Supreme Court of India; PRS.
Vacancy of judges across courts in India has affected the functioning of the judiciary, particularly in relation to the disposal of cases. Between 2006 and 2017, the number of vacancies in the High Courts has increased from 16% to 37%, and in the subordinate courts from 19% to 25%. As of 2017, High Courts have 403 vacancies against a sanctioned strength of 1,079 judges, and subordinate courts have 5,676 vacancies against a sanctioned strength of 22,704 judges. As of 2017, among the major High Courts (with sanctioned strength over 10 judges), the highest proportion of vacancies was in Karnataka High Court at 60% (37 vacancies), followed by Calcutta High Court at 54% (39 vacancies). Similarly, in major subordinate courts (with sanctioned strength over 100 judges), the highest proportion of vacancies was in Bihar High Court at 46% (835 vacancies), followed by Uttar Pradesh High Court at 42% (1,348 vacancies).