The story so far: The judicial system in India is under tremendous pressure. As of May 2022, over 4.7 crore cases are pending in courts across different levels of the judiciary. Of them, 87.4% are pending in subordinate courts, 12.4% in High Courts, while nearly 1,82,000 cases have been pending for over 30 years. Amid the rising trend of litigation, more people and organisations are approaching courts. This spike, however, is not reflected in the number of judges available to hear these cases. Inadequate infrastructure has resulted in overburdened courts, which in turn has led to a massive backlog of cases.
Chief Justice of India (CJI) N. V. Ramana’s recent remarks on pendency and vacancies in the judiciary at a joint conference of CMs and High Court Chief Justices have brought the focus back on the chronic problem of shortage of judges. Speaking at the event, the Chief Justice underlined the need to improve the judge-to-population ratio to reduce the workload of judges who he said are already disposing of an “unimaginable” number of cases. “Unless the foundation is strong, the structure cannot be sustained,” the CJI said and called for an urgent resolution of the issue of unfilled vacancies in the judicial system.
27% rise in three years: Current status of backlog
An analysis of data on the National Judicial Data Grid, a database of the Department of Justice, shows that courts saw an increase of over 27% in pendency between December 2019 and April 2022.
The Ministry of Law and Justice had earlier this year informed the Lok Sabha that 3.7 crore cases – 3.2 crore in subordinate courts and 46.8 lakh in High Courts – were pending in courts till December 2019. Disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic further clogged the Indian judicial system. There was a drop in new cases as courts went digital, but with lockdown restrictions in place, a slower disposal rate resulted in more pending cases. According to PRS Legislative Research, pending cases saw an increase of 20% in High Courts and 13% in subordinate courts during the pandemic period (2019 to 2020).
The latest data from the Department of Justice, meanwhile, reveals that the current cumulative number of 47 million (4.7 crore) pending cases is a result of a massive backlog of 4.15 crore cases in subordinate courts, 59 lakh in High Courts and over 70,000 cases in the Supreme Court.
A look at pendency status across judicial levels
Subordinate courts: Subordinate courts, comprising district and lower courts, have a record backlog of 4,15,12,098 (4.15 crore) cases at present. This includes 3.06 crore criminal cases and 1.08 crore civil cases, the Department of Justice data shows. Over 1.1 lakh cases have been pending for more than 30 years in district and lower courts.
High Courts: Of the 5.9 million (59 lakh) cases pending in the 25 High Courts of India, 42 lakh are civil cases while around 72,000 cases are more than 30 years old.
The Supreme Court: The pendency of cases was 70,572 as of May 2, 2022, according to the Supreme Court site.
Notably, when the pendency figure stood at around 3 crores in December 2019, the Centre had stated in the Economic Survey 2018-19 that it could take five years to clear the backlog in subordinate courts at full sanctioned strength.
The Centre had set up tribunals and special courts to address the pendency, but cases continue to climb in these forums also. In a written reply in Lok Sabha earlier this year, Minister of State in Ministry of Corporate Affairs Rao Inderjit Singh said that 21,089 cases were pending with the tribunal as of March. Similar is the case with fast track courts (FTCs) which were set up to dispose of long-pending cases. As of September 2021, over 10 lakh cases were pending in more than 900 FTCs. As many as 6,28,908 cases were pending in FTCs in Uttar Pradesh alone.
What is driving the delay?
The shortage of judges and the impact of the pandemic are considered the top reasons for high pendency of cases, adding to the burden of the judiciary. The sanctioned strength of judicial officers in subordinate and High Courts saw a gradual increase with the population explosion in India. However, vacancies increased from 18% to 21% across courts between 2010 and 2020, an analysis by PRS Legislative Research reveals. By April 2021, the SC had five vacancies, while 411 of 1,080 positions (38%) were vacant in High Courts.
The numbers game
There are around 25,600 judges to hear or decide over 4.7 crore pending cases in Indian courts as of May 2022, the Department of Justice data shows.
The 25 High Courts in India have a sanctioned strength of 1,104 judges. But the Department of Justice data shows that there are 387 vacancies with a working strength of 717, as of April 2022. This implies that India currently has only 717 HC judges to clear a backlog of 59 lakh cases, which roughly translates to one judge for 8,200 cases.
Leading the list is the Allahabad High Court where there are 66 vacancies against the sanctioned strength of 160. Next on the list are the Bombay and Punjab & Haryana High Courts with 37 and 36 vacancies, respectively. The situation is grim in subordinate courts where lack of basic infrastructure is already a big concern. There are over 5,000 vacancies in subordinate courts against the total sanctioned strength of 24,490. The number of cases pending in district and lower courts stands at a staggering 4.14 crore.
The top court, meanwhile, will have its full sanctioned strength until the retirement of Justice Vineet Saran. On May 9, Gauhati High Court Chief Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia and Gujarat High Court Judge Justice Jamshed Burjor Pardiwala were appointed as judges of the Supreme Court, taking the tally of judges in the SC to full sanctioned strength of 34.
Acknowledging the need for filling up judicial vacancies to promote access to justice, the CJI in his address to CMs and judges noted that there are merely 20 judges per lakh population in the country. “When we last met in 2016, the sanctioned strength of judicial officers was 20,811. Now, it is 24,112, which is an increase of 16% in six years. On the other hand, in the corresponding period, pendency [of cases] in district courts has gone up from 2 crore 65 lakh to 4 crore 11 lakh, which is an increase of 54.64%,” the CJI said.
Calling for collective efforts to improve the “alarmingly low” judge-to-population ratio, the Chief Justice noted that while 126 HC appointment recommendations have received government clearance, 50 proposals were awaiting approval.
Undertrials on the rise
Sharp spike in case pendency in Indian courts has resulted in an increase in the number of undertrials lodged in prisons. An undertrial is a prisoner on trial in a court of law. As per the Prison Statistics-2020, released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), undertrials accounted for 76% of the total inmates in around 1,300 prisons across the country. The NCRB report showed that 3.7 lakh inmates were undergoing trial, while 1.12 lakh were convicted during 2020. In 2019, over two-thirds of a total of 4.8 lakh prisoners were undertrials.
|Year||Number of convicts||Number of undertrial prisoners|
*Source: Prison Statistics India–2020*
The Centre’s position
The Centre has reiterated its resolve to reduce pendency while maintaining that disposal of cases remains under the domain of the judiciary. Addressing the Lok Sabha earlier this year, Minister of Law and Justice Kiren Rijiju stated that the Central government has no role in the disposal of cases in courts. In his reply, the minister added that the Centre has taken multiple steps to address the issue of case pendency while remarking that timely disposal of cases depends on several factors including the availability of an adequate number of judges and infrastructure. “There are several 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,” the minister said.
Before this, the Centre had suggested measures like increasing the number of working days of courts, establishment of fast track courts and Indian Courts and Tribunal Services (ICTs) to increase the productivity of the court system. Despite these remedial measures, not much has changed on the ground and a shortage of judges continues to clog the justice delivery system.