What the Supreme Court data reveals
What information on caseload and pendency of the top court - seen in light of similar data from lower courts and high courts - shows about the judicial system
The oldest case pending at the Supreme Court of India is from 1982 — 80% of all cases entering the apex court are resolved within a year; 17% of civil appeals take 9-14 years to be disposed of while 87% of Special Leave (Criminal) cases are disposed of within a year. These are just a few of the insights that can be gleaned from the new dashboard on the performance and pendency of the highest court, after it joined the National Judicial Data Grid, which maintains data on cases pending and disposed of by courts across the country.
So far, only district courts and high court data have been available, which has been the go-to portal for researchers and those advocating for judicial reform both within and outside the judiciary and the government. But data on the highest court and the most well-funded one was scattered across court documents, annual reports and parliamentary questions. With the new dashboard added to NJDG, we have a one-stop, real-time repository of all case-related information pertaining to all three tiers of the Indian judiciary.
Supreme Court data is distributed across three dashboards, providing an overview of key statistics, and data on pending cases and on cases disposed of. At a glance, we know that over 80,000 cases are pending. It also gives us month-wise and annual figures on institution and disposal of cases thereby allowing for a granular analysis and monitoring of the workload of various benches as well as their performance.
Very often the judiciary, particularly the higher judiciary, has been criticised for displaying a certain resistance to allowing public scrutiny of its processes and performance. With this new, much-needed and welcome move, the Supreme Court has taken a giant step towards increasing transparency and enabling scrutiny of its own workloads and performance. One hopes that this is only the beginning to make the courts more transparent and open to constructive criticism.
There are 5.06 crore cases pending in the country as of today. Of them, 1.6 lakh cases have been pending for more than 30 years and 52 lakh for more than 10 years. The India Justice Report, 2022, a report that measures and tracks the performance of the judiciary across the country, found that it takes 5.3 years on average for a case to be cleared in High Courts. It also found that with rising vacancy levels at both the district and high court levels, cases per judge have significantly increased since 2017.
As of September 21, for instance, 59,377 civil and criminal cases (SLP, Appeal and Writs) were pending before the dozen or so two-judge benches. This means that the average workload per each such bench is approximately 4,948 cases. There are 580 cases pending before three-judge benches; 313 before five-judge benches and 21 cases before seven-judge benches; finally, 135 cases are pending before nine-judge benches. At the moment, there are no cases being heard by either 11 or 15 judge benches.
The dashboard provides information on the types of cases pending in court currently, and those that have been disposed of but data on this is available only since 2018. Illustratively, since 2018, the apex court has disposed of six Suo Moto writ petitions (civil) while the total number of such cases pending currently is 18. With a sanctioned strength of 34 judges, one can’t help but wonder whether it is time to substantially increase the judge strength so that the Supreme Court can better deliver on its mandate of guarding the constitutional rights of every citizen.
Another feature of this section, rather another way to portray the same data, is to give an overview of how many cases remain pending over a range of periods, illustratively, 22483 cases are pending for 1 year; 9984 for 1 to 3 years; 12,155 for 3-5 years and 18 cases that have been pending for the last 30 years.
Supreme court case clearance rates since 2018, can be calculated with ease with the data available on the new dashboard.
Time to disposition is a unique feature of this portal - it allows the user to understand how long it takes to dispose of a case. Illustratively, 80% of all cases were disposed of within a year; 6% within 2 years and 2% within 5 years. Disposition time can be seen by type of cases as well, for example, 84% of criminal appeals were disposed of within a year while 42% of arbitration petitions were disposed of within a year.
One aspect that is not available on the dashboard is information about the presence of SC, ST and OBC judges at the apex court while this data is available for both the district judiciary as well as at high courts on another portal maintained by the department of justice.
The India Justice Report 2022, finds that no state or union territory could fully meet all its SC, ST and OBC quotas at the district courts. In answer to a question in the Lok Sabha in July this year, the Minister of Law and Justice stated that of the 604 appointments to the High Court from 2018 to July 2023, 3% belonged to the Scheduled castes; 1.5% were from Scheduled Tribes and 12% from Other Backward Classes. Despite regular commitments towards social diversity, the pace of inclusivity has remained exceedingly slow.
Another aspect that is missing is the reasons for the delay. Presently, the NJDG district court portal includes reasons that range from unsubmitted documents, and absconding parties to the case to unavailability of counsels.
Valay Singh is the project lead, while Nayanika Singhal is a researcher for the India Justice Report