Over the years, the Indian justice delivery system has become increasingly burdened with pendency. As per the latest National Judicial Data Grid statistics, over 2.74 crore cases are pending across courts in India. The average litigant will tell you how slowly the wheels of justice move, at great cost to her time and resources.
While discussing solutions to stem the burgeoning pendency of cases, the topic of court vacations often comes up. There have been calls to reduce, and to even do away with vacations altogether. Most recently, a PIL was filed in the Supreme Court calling to reduce the number of holidays observed by courts.
As has been repeated ad nauseam, pendency is a multi-faceted issue, the solution to which requires attention to a large number of connected issues. For the purposes of this article, we will only be looking at whether reducing or doing away with court holidays can have a bearing on the pendency figures.
So, do courts really need vacations? Should the number of court holidays be reduced in order to bring down the pendency rates? Would the pendency rates reduce drastically if vacations are done away with?
A Holistic View
To begin with, let us take a look at the number of working days at the Supreme Court and ten high courts with the highest number of pending cases. In order to get a more holistic picture, these numbers are juxtaposed with the number of vacancies in each of these courts.
|Court||No. of working days||Pendency of cases||Vacancies/ Sanctioned Strength|
|Allahabad High Court||209||9,19,396||63/160|
|Madras High Court||208||3,49,935||19/75|
|Punjab & Haryana High Court||206||3,42,509 (as of May 2018)||36/85|
|Madhya Pradesh High Court||213||3,13,751 (as of March 2018)||22/53|
|Telangana & Andhra Pradesh High Court||195*||3,11,243||32/61|
|Bombay High Court||205||2,76,026||25/94|
|Karnataka High Court||201*||2,92,988||33/62|
|Rajasthan High Court||205||2,62,173 (as of February 2018)||17/50|
|Calcutta High Court||213||2,24,760 (as of April 2018)||35/72|
|Orissa High Court||210||1,69,175 (as of June 2018)||11/27|
All pendency figures as of June 2017, unless mentioned otherwise
Pendency data from Supreme Court Annual Report 2016-17
*Includes optional holidays
As the table reveals, most high courts work for a little over 200 days a year on average. That means courts enjoy, on average, around 160 days off on account of vacations, weekends and national holidays. The Supreme Court has more holidays than the high courts, with 188 sitting days in 2018. These numbers are, of course, exclusive of vacation bench sittings.
Evidenced from above, and as pointed out by various members of the legal fraternity, the vacancies at high courts are not helping the pending figures by any stretch. The central government is directly responsible for this situation, but that is another story for another day.
Now, let us theoretically analyse how much of the deficit can be overcome if courts did not have vacations, taking the Punjab & Haryana High Court as an example. In May 2018, the High Court disposed of a total of 13,884 cases. The High Court observes summer vacation for twenty sitting days in June and six days in December, roughly adding up to a whole month.
Case Filed / Disposal before Punjab & Haryana High Court
|Cases filed in May 2018||9,043||7,920||16,963|
|Case disposal in May 2018||8,157||5,727||13,884|
Assuming that it operates at the same efficiency and under the same circumstances, the High Court can reduce its pendency by ~13,000 cases a year if it does not close for vacations.
However, the number of cases instituted at the High Court that month is 16,963. Taking that into account, the number of pending cases at the High Court, which as of May stands at over 3.42 lakh cases, it will see a decrease of 4.5% cases.
Though there is theoretical sense to the argument that doing away with vacations will stem the growth of pendency, one has to take into consideration practical concerns as well. More on that later.
Bar against barring vacations
Attempts to do away with court holidays in the past have not been well received by the lawyers. Former Chief Justice of India RM Lodha floated the idea of a Supreme Court that works 365 days a year, much to the disagreement of the Bar. The Bar Council of India and State Bar Councils instead suggested having courts open six days a week, increasing the working hours and appointing more judges.
A survey conducted by Bar & Bench two years ago revealed that lawyers were not keen on giving up their vacations. Only 24.5% of the respondents were in favour of doing away with vacations, while 48.2% were open to a reduction in the number of days off. 70% of them said they would agree to work during vacations, with a similar percentage agreed to co-operate with judges who make these attempts.
And a number of high courts have taken the initiative to work on Saturdays to dispose of cases pending for decades. This, after Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra urged Chief Justices of the high courts to do so in order to ensure expeditious disposal of criminal appeals/jail appeals.
So, as and when the need has arisen, lawyers have been called upon to give up their holidays for the greater good.
First person perspective
The other stakeholders involved in this argument, and perhaps the most important, are the judges. As both retired as well as sitting judges reveal, they are only human. Former Supreme Court judge, Justice Gopala Gowda expressed this in an earlier interview. He had also called for better time management on the part of judges while disposing of cases.
“A Supreme Court judge has to work like a bull, hearing seventy cases a day. One year of work is equivalent to working for five years…Judges are also human beings. They can work for a maximum of 7-8 hours.
The methodology of working has to be changed. There needs to be focus on conceptual understanding. Once this is there, you can decide a case that usually takes 3-4 hours within half an hour.”
Having to read about 70-80 matters a day on varied topics of law is no mean feat. Judges do not get any free time during the week as a result. And it is not like they are kicking back and relaxing during the vacation. This time is reserved for writing judgments, an exercise that (in most cases) can be highly time consuming.
Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul recently made this observation during the hearing of the disqualified Tamil Nadu MLAs in the Supreme Court:
“Lawyers filed a petition and argued the case for four months and then you think Judges are like computers, you press one button and order will come. Orders and judgments take deliberations and can’t be passed in days.”
Justice Deepak Maheshwari, a sitting judge of the Rajasthan High Court, recently offered a glimpse into the life of a high court judge, revealing,
“In a single day, a judge presides over 80 to 90 such cases on an average. His decisions affect public life and therefore, such decisions cannot be rendered without application of mind. Without much elaboration upon the hard work required, it would suffice to say that a judge has to sacrifice his leisure time and work on almost every weekend to ensure that he is able to do justice to his work. Most of the holidays have become symbolic.”
As per Maheshwari J, and as revealed earlier, pendency figures will not reduce drastically even if judges work round the year.
“…even if a judge was to sit for the whole calendar year without taking a day off, arrears would not come to an end. There is abundance of fresh filing in courts every day which requires relief of urgent nature in some way or the other. Though the workload may reduce a little bit by modifying the court vacation schedule, it is practically not feasible to bring a substantial change without increasing the number of judges.”
Long story short, we ought to find other ways by which we can reduce pendency without overburdening the already beleaguered judges of the higher judiciary. For starters, the Centre could stop sitting on files relating to judicial appointments and fill in the vacancies.