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Pandemic impact: Record pendency of cases at all levels of judiciary

According to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), a government platform monitoring judicial data, backlog of cases in district courts saw a sharp increase of 18.2 per cent between December 31, 2019 and December 31, 2020.

Written by Apurva Vishwanath | New Delhi |
Updated: March 27, 2021 10:04:06 am
In the previous year, 2018-2019, the increase was 7.79 per cent and in 2017-2018 it increased 11.6 per cent.

Underlining the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the functioning of courts, pendency of cases in all levels of the judiciary has increased significantly, reaching an all-time high in one year of virtual functioning.

According to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), a government platform monitoring judicial data, backlog of cases in district courts saw a sharp increase of 18.2 per cent between December 31, 2019 and December 31, 2020.

In the previous year, 2018-2019, the increase was 7.79 per cent and in 2017-2018 it increased 11.6 per cent.

In the 25 high courts across the country, pendency of cases in 2019-2020 increased 20.4 per cent. In the previous year, in 2018-2019, it increased only 5.29 per cent.

In the Supreme Court, pendency rose 10.35 per cent — from 60,469 cases on March 1, 2020 to 66,727 on March 1, 2021. The increase is the highest at least since 2013 when the Supreme Court began making monthly pendency data publicly available. In absolute terms, a backlog of 66,727 cases is the highest that the top court has ever had.

On Thursday, a Supreme Court bench headed by CJI S A Bobde observed that pendency of cases “has gone out of control”, and said it will issue guidelines for appointment of temporary judges to help address the backlog.

In previous years, the backlog increase was significantly lower in the SC. For example, between March 1, 2019 and March 1, 2020, the backlog saw an increase of 4.6 per cent and between March 1, 2018 and March 1, 2019, the increase was 3.9 per cent. In 2017-2018, in the same period, pendency in fact reduced 11.9 per cent from 62,161 to 55,529 cases.

The sharp increase in backlog when the court functioned in the virtual mode is despite increased judicial hours. According to a press statement issued by the Supreme Court on January 28, the court functioned more than usual during the pandemic. “Beyond the usual minimum required 190 days Court sittings in a Calendar Year, the Court was functional for 231 days, including 13 vacation sittings in the year 2020.

The Registry also remained functional for 271 days as against an average of 268 days in the previous three years,” the statement said.

A Law Ministry response on February 3 to a query in Lok Sabha stated that the SC has had nearly 32,000 hearings during the lockdown period.

Members of the Bar, however, have been pushing for resuming physical functioning of the court to deal with the rising backlog.

“The rise is significantly high but even that does not convey the complete picture. The filing also had gone down during the pandemic. If you take into account cases that would be usually filed, the backlog for last year would be even higher,” senior advocate and president of the Supreme Court Bar Association Vikas Singh said.

“There is already a huge vacancy of judges in the country and restricted functioning of courts has added to that. But the judges are not doing anything to remedy the situation,” he added.

Ad-hoc judges can be appointed to high courts as well as the Supreme Court temporarily under Articles 128 and 224A of the Constitution. However, there are several vacancies in regular appointments. According to data by the Department of Justice, high courts across the country are short of 38.8 per cent judges as of 1 March. Against a sanctioned strength of 1080 judges, there are 661 judges presently in high courts. The Supreme Court is short of four judges against a sanctioned strength of 34 judges, apart from another vacancy when CJI Bobde retires on April 23.

Since lockdown started in March last year, district courts have heard 45,73,159 cases and the High Courts and Supreme Court have heard 20,60,318 and 52,353 cases, respectively till December 31, 2020 through video conferencing.

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