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The Supreme Court, an institution that has, and continues to garner much media attention, is now receiving attention of a slightly different kind.
Academics and legal practitioners from across the country have begun analysing just what takes up the judicial time of one of the most powerful courts in the world.
Delhi-based Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, recently added to this growing literature, with a report titled “Towards and Efficient and Effective Supreme Court”. The report analyses the number and subject matter of all cases filed in 2014. By further classifying the cases as per case type (SLP, Review etc), the report is a fascinating look into just what the Supreme Court did in the year 2014.
And some of the findings are sure to raise a few eyebrows.
Alok Prasanna Kumar, one of the authors of the report, says that one of the most surprising findings related to the appeals from decisions of the Armed Forces Tribunal.
“Of 924 appeals filed in the SC against orders of the AFT, 890 or 96% were filed by the Government alone, but quite surprisingly 96.7% of these appeals filed by the Government were dismissed in the first hearing itself. This suggests a very blase attitude towards litigation against service personnel, veterans and widows who’re usually ranged against the Government in such litigation.”
Another surprising finding relates to the acceptance rate of special leave petitions. When it comes to civil special leave petitions, the acceptance rate was close to half (46%).
“The common perception is that the Supreme Court dismisses 80-90% of all SLPs on the first hearing itself but what our figures show is that the number is smaller – about 57%…… the fact remains that the Supreme Court’s acceptance rates are surprisingly large and is definitely, in my view, a contributor to the increasing backlog of cases in the Supreme Court.”
And when it comes to backlog, the figures can be mind-boggling. In the last decade alone, as the report notes, the number of cases filed per year has increased by 80%. In 2014 for instance, a total of 81,583 cases were filed in the apex court to be heard by less than thirty individuals.
Nick Robinson, whose work is extensively quoted in the VCLP report, also expressed worry at the growing caseload. In an interview in 2012, Robinson said,
“I was also surprised – and somewhat troubled – to find that the Supreme Court’s docket is growing faster than either the High Courts or the lower courts.
Robinson was not the only one to notice this disturbing trend. In fact, the pioneer of numerical analysis of the Indian Supreme Court was Professor George H Gadbois. As noted by Vikram Raghavan,
“The word ‘jurimetrics’ has always been associated with [Gadbois]. No one has really done this kind of work.”
Like Robinson, and Gadbois before him, the VCLP team did face some problems when it came to access and analysis, not least of which was the lack of a coherent classification process.
Kumar says that the “idiosyncratic” methods adopted by the Supreme Court did make things difficult for the VCLP team.
“To give one illustration: SLPs filed together are numbered together as in SLP (C) 110-115/2014 and treated as one case if they’re from the same common judgment. But if they’re not filed together, they’re not numbered together and each one treated as a separate case even though they are all appeals filed against a common judgment.”
It is a sentiment that is echoed by Harish Narasappa, co-founder of Samvad Partners in Bangalore, and one of the principal forces behind Daksh India.
“The judges don’t have the time because they are busy writing judgments and dispensing justice. The registry only looks at day-to-day management. In fact, nobody knows whether the pendency figures are true or not!”
That’s not all, there is also the case of missing information. The VCLP reports that the Supreme Court’s website could not provide any information in as much as 5.5% of the total cases of 2014. And the reason for this remains is not quite clear.
“Because the Supreme Court’s system does not explain why there’s no information or why it’s not being displayed, it is difficult for us to speculate. It could be anything from simple error in data entry to the court redacting details from the public for some reason.”
But its not just the numbers that are covered in VCLP’s report; the subject matter of the cases that reach the apex court has also been analysed. And it makes for some interesting findings. For instance, transfer petitions (both civil and criminal) constituted nearly 8% of all cases filed in 2014.
These are petitions which, as the report also notes, do not involve complex questions of law, yet are heard by Division Benches.
There is hope though; CJI Thakur’s recent decision to set up two Constitution Benches every Monday and Friday should see some decline in pendency figures.
“There should be some timeline. Even if it is a Constitution Bench, arguments should not go one for days on end.”
VCLP’s Kumar agrees, but also says that there is a need for a permanent Constitution Bench that sits throughout the year.
“I would suggest that they sit on every day instead of just Mondays and Fridays so that the hearings can move quickly and continuity is maintained.”
Going forward, Kumar says that the exercise will not be limited to the Supreme Court alone; VCLP intends to move to High Courts, and the trial courts as well.
“We want to gather data from the ten largest High Courts and a sample size of the District Courts to understand how cases move through the system and where the clogs seem to be taking place.”
There are exciting times ahead.
Read the VCLP Report below.