Lest We Forget: What did District Courts prioritise during COVID-19 pandemic?

A recent study conducted by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shows that in spite of the directions of the Court, the process of decongesting the prisons remained slow and cumbersome across almost all States.
District court complex, Ernakulam
District court complex, ErnakulamImage for representative purpose

By Atishya Kumar and Shreya Tripathy

The COVID-19 pandemic was an event unlike any other witnessed by the Indian judicial system. Litigants and lawyers across the country suffered as the courts almost shut down. The judicial system, which is considered the embodiment of justice, embarked on a journey to live up to the expectations of the general public to the best of its abilities.

On March 26, 2020, the Supreme Court of India issued a notification stating that it will continue to function virtually and will hear matters involving extreme urgency. The apex court stated that the “urgency” will be decided on a case-to-case basis depending on the application filed by the advocate-on-record/party-in-person elaborating on the basis of the extreme urgency.

High Courts across the country followed suit with similar notifications for hearing matters. The severely reduced capacity induced by the sudden lack of physical hearings resulted in Courts having to prioritize certain cases over others.

However, while 11 High Courts clearly laid down the criteria for prescribing urgency of matters, over a period of time, for themselves as well as the District Courts under their jurisdiction, the remaining 14 High Courts did not. In some instances, the decision was left up to the discretion of the judicial officers.

At the beginning of the pandemic itself, the Supreme Court directed all the State governments to form high powered committees and undertake measures to decongest prisons and reduce the spread of the virus played an important role in laying down these criteria through cases like In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 virus In Prisons.

The committees were tasked to assess the risk of the virus spreading in the already overcrowded prisons and recommend the release of prisoners on interim bail/parole where possible. Hence, all the High Courts that did lay down criteria for urgency, included “bail applications” as a case type.

A recent study conducted by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shows that in spite of the directions of the Court, the process of decongesting the prisons remained slow and cumbersome across almost all States.

As part of the Lest We Forget series, the Data Speak: A look at District Courts' performance during the pandemic report undertakes an analysis of the extent to which the COVID-19 pandemic affected the Indian judiciary at the District Court level.

The study is a deep dive into the numbers and kinds of cases that were dealt with by the District judiciary which is often the only interface of the general public with the Indian legal system. According to the data released, there was no significant increase or decrease in the number of bail applications being disposed of across most District Courts during the pandemic (as compared to the two years prior to the pandemic).

The most significant increase in the disposal of bail applications was seen in the District Courts in Uttarakhand. Disposal increased by an astonishing 372 percent, i.e., the District Courts, on average, disposed of 13,746 bail applications as compared to the 2,913 they had disposed of in the two years prior to the pandemic.

However, as per prison statistics published by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), this did not reflect adequately on the prison occupancy in the State. Despite increasing their bail disposals, the courts could not keep up with the number of bail applications and the prison occupancy rate in the State stayed at 185 percent at the end of 2021.

The District Courts in Andhra Pradesh also increased the disposal of bail applications significantly by 64.5 percent, i.e., on average 13,167 bail applications were disposed of by the Courts in the 2020-2021 period. Similar to Uttarakhand, the prison occupancy rate also increased in Andhra Pradesh with 90.7 percent of prisons being occupied as of 31st December 2021.

The disposal of bail applications suffered the most in the District Courts in West Bengal as they saw a decrease in the disposal by as much as 56.75 percent and 102.05 percent of prisons in West Bengal were occupied at the end of 2021. This trend was reflected nationally and overcrowding remained a concern as the national prison occupancy rate at the end of 2021 was 130.2 percent.

Hence, the order of the Supreme Court directing the high powered committees/ High Courts to identify and release the vulnerable categories of prisoners on an urgent basis does not seem to have been effective.

The COVID-19 pandemic also derailed fast-track courts across the country leading to many cases involving vulnerable victims and accused being dragged on.

One such class of accused were children in conflict with the law. As per the Juvenile Justice Act, 2015, the inquiry involving such children should be completed within a period of four months from the date of the first production of the child before the Juvenile Justice Board.

During the pandemic, District Courts across most States witnessed a decrease in the disposal of juvenile justice cases.

District Courts in Bihar performed the worst with the disposal of Juvenile Justice Cases falling by 73.87 percent. This was closely followed by the District Courts under the jurisdiction of the Andhra Pradesh High Court (69.55 percent), the High Court of Judicature at Bombay (66 percent), and the Himachal Pradesh High Court (59.49 percent). In Tripura, the number of Juvenile Justice Cases disposed of by District Courts per year also reduced by 69.23 percent, i.e., the courts disposed of 4 cases in comparison to the 13 cases that they had disposed of in the pre-pandemic period. On the other hand, the disposal of Juvenile Justice Cases increased by 64.71 percent in the District Courts under the Calcutta High Court during the pandemic period.

According to NCRB data, 29,768 cases were filed against juveniles in 2020 which increased by 4.7 percent in the next year to 31,170 cases. The reduced capacity of Courts resulted in a further decrease in the disposal of juvenile justice cases aggravating the already bleak situation.

The e-Courts Project of the e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India conceptualized the “National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary” with a vision to adequately equip the Indian Judiciary with adequate digital infrastructure in 2005.

While the Supreme Court and the High Courts have been mostly equipped with technological infrastructure, the adoption of the same has clearly not been as successful in the District Courts across the country. The inequitable distribution of technological resources and technical know-how across the lower judiciary left some courts even under the jurisdiction of the same High Court grappling to maintain the same level of efficiency during the pandemic.

On the other hand, some courts were able to prioritise and achieve better results. While preparing for the future, each High Court needs to be more mindful of the most vulnerable sections of the society and ensure that they are prioritised by laying down clear disaster management policies instead of providing a case-by-case solution.

Read part I of the series here.

Shreya Tripathy is a Senior Resident Fellow and Atishya Kumar is a Research Fellow with the Justice, Access and Lowering Delays in India (JALDI) Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

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