The limited functioning of courts effected by the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly worsened the omnipresent problem of case pendency that has been plaguing the Indian justice delivery system.
As per statistics revealed by the Central government, the number of pending cases in courts across the country has crossed the 4.6 crore mark, as of December 2021.
An allied issue that has been inextricably linked to case pendency - that of judicial vacancies - continues to loom large, with thousands of posts in lower courts and the High Court yet to be filled.
So what is the current status of case pendency? What are the efforts being taken to address the issue? This piece aims to address these questions and more, on the basis of responses by Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju to questions raised in the ongoing 2021 Winter Session of Parliament.
All of the government's responses have come with a caveat - that disposal of pending cases in courts is within the purview of the judiciary and that there are several factors leading to the insurmountable pendency.
Some of these factors include “availability of adequate number of judges and judicial officers, supporting court staff and physical infrastructure, complexity of facts involved, nature of evidence, cooperation of stakeholders viz. bar, investigation agencies, witnesses and litigants and proper application of rules and procedures. There are several other factors which may lead to delay in disposal of cases. These, inter-alia, include vacancies of judges, frequent adjournments and lack of adequate arrangement to monitor, track and bunch cases for hearing,” Rijiju reiterated on multiple occasions.
In these responses, the Minister revealed the many initiatives being taken by the Central government to aid speedy disposal of cases in order to reduce pendency. Some of the most prominent initiatives undertaken in this regard are as follows:
Improving infrastructure for judicial officers of district and subordinate courts
Till date, ₹8,709.77 crore has been released for development of infrastructure facilities for judiciary since the inception of the Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS) in 1993-94.
The number of court halls have increased from 15,818 as on June 30, 2014 to 20,565 as on October 31, 2021 and number of residential units has increased from 10,211 to 18,142 during the same time frame;
In addition, 2,841 court halls and 1,807 residential units are under construction;
The CSS Scheme has been extended till 2025-26 at a total cost of ₹9,000 crore, out of which the central share will be ₹5,307 crore.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT)
Number of computerized district and subordinate courts have increased to 18,735 as on July 1, 2021;
WAN connectivity has been provided to 98.7% of court complexes;
As on November 1, 2021, litigants can access case status of over 19.56 crore cases and 15.72 crore order/judgments pertaining to the computerized courts;
Video conferencing facility has been enabled between 3,240 court complexes and 1,272 corresponding jails. ₹5.01 crore has been allocated for providing equipment in video conferencing cabins in various court complexes to facilitate virtual hearings;
₹12.12 crore has been allocated for 1,732 help desk counters for e-filing in various court complexes;
15 virtual courts have been set up in 11 States/UTs - Delhi (2), Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala (2), Maharashtra (2), Assam, Chhattisgarh, Jammu & Kashmir (2), Uttar Pradesh and Odisha to try traffic offences;
As on November 1, 2021, these virtual courts have handled more than 99 lakh cases and realized more than ₹193.15 crore in fines.
Initiatives to fast track special type of cases
As on October 31, 2021, 914 fast track courts are functional for heinous crimes, crimes against women and children etc;
To fast track criminal cases involving elected MPs/MLAs, 10 Special Courts are functional in 9 States/Union Territories (1 each in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and 2 in NCT of Delhi);
Further, the Central government has approved a scheme for setting up 1,023 Fast Track Special Courts (FTSCs) across the country for expeditious disposal of pending cases of rape under IPC and crimes under Protection of Children from Sexual Offences (POCSO) Act.
As on date, 28 States/UTs have joined the scheme for setting up of 842 FTSCs including 363 exclusive POCSO courts.
₹140 crore was released in the financial year 2019-20 and ₹160 crore has been released during the financial year 2020-21 for the scheme.
681 FTSCs are presently functional including 381 exclusive POCSO courts, which disposed of 64,217 cases as on October 31, 2021.
The continuation of the scheme of FTSC has been approved for another two years (2021-23) at a total outlay of ₹1,572.86 crore, including ₹971.70 crore as the Centre’s share.
The total number of pending civil cases in the subordinate courts across the country is 1,07,08,429, while the total number of pending criminal cases in subordinate courts is 2,99,63,937. This puts the total count of pendency in subordinate courts at a whopping 4,06,72,366 cases.
The total number of pending civil cases in High Courts is 40,81,024 and the total number of pending criminal cases is 15,59,617, taking the total pendency to 56,40,641 cases.
In the Supreme Court, the pendency of cases as on December 6, 2021 is 69,855 cases as per the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG).
Further, NJDG data reveals how long cases have been pending before the lower courts.
The total number of civil cases pending in lower courts which are older than 3 years is 37,75,920; the total number of such criminal cases in the lower courts is 1,11,16,40. Thus, a total of 1,48,92,327 cases pending in lower courts are more than 3 years old. Nearly 1 lakh cases have been pending for more than 30 years.
It was also stated on record that since the beginning of the lockdown, district courts have heard 1,01,77,289 cases, while High Courts heard 55,24,021 cases (totalling to 1.57 crore) till October 31, 2021 using video conference facility alone. The Supreme Court held 1,50,692 hearings since the lockdown period upto October 29, 2021.
As per the government's responses, filling up judicial vacancies is fraught with its own challenges given the retirement, resignation or elevation of judges. Here is an overview of the current status of appointment of judges in the Supreme Court, High Courts and the subordinate courts across the country:
May 1, 2014 to December 14, 2021, 44 judges were appointed in the Supreme Court;
690 new judges were appointed and 583 additional judges were made permanent in High Courts;
120 Judges have been appointed in High Courts between January 1, 2021 and December 17, 2021;
167 proposals are pending/under process with the Supreme Court Collegium and Central government;
There are 237 vacancies for which recommendations have not been received from High Courts;
The sanctioned strength of judges in district and subordinate courts increased from 19,518 in the year 2014 to 24,485 as on November 30, 2021;
As against the sanctioned strength of 1,098 judges in High Courts across States, there are currently 694 judges, with 404 vacancies.
There is only 1 vacant seat in the Supreme Court with the total working strength at 33 judges out of 34.
From December 14, 2018 to December 13, 2021 the Supreme Court Collegium has “reiterated 32 proposals, out of which government has appointed 9 recommendees as High Court judges and 23 proposals are under various stages of processing with the government.”
Over the years, there have been several requests to set up Benches of the Supreme Court across the country. However, the Supreme Court has consistently opposed the idea of having benches of the apex court outside Delhi, Rijiju recently said in Parliament.
It was also stated that a writ petition seeking the establishment of National Courts of Appeal is currently sub judice before the apex court.
Similarly, there have been requests for setting up Benches of High Courts after taking into account the expenses and infrastructural facilities that would be required to effectuate a functional Bench. As of today, it is stated that there is no complete proposal pending with the government regarding setting up additional Benches of any High Court, one of the responses revealed.
In the Economic Survey 2019, the Central government exhibited confidence by stating that it is possible to clear the pendency of 3.5 crore cases languishing in Indian courts by focusing on filling up the vacancies in the judiciary. The suggestions also included increasing the number of working days for the judiciary, the creation of a specialised Indian Courts and Tribunal Service (ICTS) to deal with the administrative aspects of the system, and the deployment of technology.
However, it is evident that the strategy has not done much in the way of bringing the number of pending cases down. In light of the roadblocks caused by the pandemic, and even as case pendency nears the 5 crore mark, it will be interesting to see how the stakeholders go about tackling the issue.