A moment of transition is a time for stocktaking. The new chief justice of India (CJI), Altamas Kabir, begins his term with 63,749 cases pending in the Supreme Court. His predecessors tried to push back the rising numbers but failed. Former chief justice S H Kapadia took up the top post in 2010 with a backlog of 55,018, but he has not been able to contain the flow of litigation.
In 2007, 41,730 cases were pending. This number rose to 46,374 in 2008 and touched 50,200 in 2009. Apart from these, the number of heavy matters to be decided by a Constitution bench of at least five judges stands at 42. Then there are issues referred by benches of two or three judges to a larger bench because of a conflict of views or since the earlier judgments require re-examination and clarity in the emerging context. All this would take a few decades to clear, assuming that new petitions are frozen at present.
There used to be an annual report that would give a more detailed account of the state of affairs at the apex level. However, its publication, which started in 2005, was suspended in 2009. Therefore, a detailed analysis is not possible.
But there are some soothing words that Justice Kapadia liked to reiterate. According to him, a deeper analysis would show that the picture is not so alarming. For instance, at the end of last year, out of 58,519 pending matters, if the connected matters are excluded, the pendency is only 33,892. “Connected matters” refer to cases in which the legal question involved is common: this means that if one lead case is decided, the rest can automatically be disposed of. The number of civil cases, which take more time for hearing, is 47,623. There were 10,896 criminal cases last year.
The much-repeated word “pending” has also been given a new spin. In the above example, out of 58,519 cases, only 21,134 are more than a year old. Thus, the arrears, or cases pending for more than a year, are only 37,385. Though the argument is reassuring, even this figure is formidable. Filing of new cases is also going up steadily.
On the other hand, nine vacancies have arisen in the Supreme Court this year, aggravating the situation. Appointments have been held up for reasons that are wildly talked about in bar libraries, and which cannot be extracted even through Right to Information applications because of the thick veil of secrecy around the selection process conducted by a collegium of senior judges. The court has shut out any ray of sunlight into this closed-door decision-making process, though it is of vital concern to the public. In fact, the court is seen to have kept a tight lid on a petition asserting the Right to Information on the selection process.
This bleak picture has been the theme of legal seminars for a long time. Some judges have warned against the impending collapse of the judicial system. The sky has not fallen yet; this country has shown tremendous resilience in sustaining its functioning anarchy in every field. But some hopeful signs should be noted.
Some of the 21 high courts have shown in recent months that they have disposed of more cases than were filed. This negative growth is claimed by the high courts of Delhi (-1.98), Chhattisgarh (-1.49), Gujarat (- 3.06), Patna (-3.65) and Rajasthan (-8.50). Some high courts are on the border line, like those of Andhra Pradesh (0.94), Bombay (0.21), Himachal Pradesh (0.59) and Punjab & Haryana (0.79). The situation in Sikkim is unbeatable, with two judges disposing of cases equal in number to those filed. In that blissful height, only 60 cases are pending.
Several district and subordinate courts also seem to be stirring, with better infrastructure, computerisation and hike in salaries. Courts in Tripura (-13.97) and Nagaland (-13.30) lead in this field. Among those that follow with good ranking are the Union Territory of Chandigarh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Sikkim. This would perhaps show that if adequate funds and facilities are available, the subordinate judiciary can turn around the general trend. The Planning Commission and Budget makers should take note of this reality.
Though Chief Justice Kabir has a short tenure of nine months, he can kick-start some reforms and set a good precedent. The long-winded arguments running into months in a single case can be reined in; judgments can be delivered soon after the closing of arguments; computerisation can be fully utilised to speed up procedure and eliminate corruption in the registry; vacancies should be filled up as soon as they arise. It is a tall order, but public faith in the judiciary depends on it.