A large backlog of cases is a legacy problem of the Indian judiciary, but the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this.
A special services cadre can also be created to take care of the administrative functions to resolve the backend problems at courts that contribute to pendency.
There are now over 4 crore pending cases in the lower courts, higher courts and the Supreme Court—there were over 3.99 crore matters at the lower courts and higher courts as on date, while a little over 62,000 cases were pending at the Supreme Court at the start of this month. A large backlog of cases is a legacy problem of the Indian judiciary, but the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated this—between November last year and February this year, pending cases had grown from 3.59 crore to 3.65 crore.
With the courts having pared down normal functioning to avoid crowding and the consequent corona-risk, and virtual courts functioning only for important matters, the spike in pendency was quite expected. Given most of the cases in both lower courts and High Courts are pending at the early stages of a trial, the pendency is also not likely to get meaningfully lowered soon if the underlying factors are not resolved.
The backlog means dispensing of justice through courts also is quite delayed—over a third of the cases at the lower courts have been pending for anywhere between three and >30 years. Part of the problem is the missing judicial strength in courts—against a sanctioned strength of 1,079, there were 401 vacancies across High Courts in the country.
The picture is far worse for the lower courts—at the end of March this year, 5,146 posts of judicial officers in lower courts were vacant against the sanctioned strength of 24,018. As an analysis in the Economic Survey 2018-19 shows, to clear the backlog within the next five years as well as take care of the fresh cases coming up in these years, the lower courts need 8,152 additional judges and the high courts 361—nearly 50% over the current strength they have.
Beyond adding to judicial strength, a host of other factors—from infrastructural gaps to lack of supporting court staff strength—will have to be dealt with. While there has been some action on remedying physical infrastructural gaps—the number of court halls has increased from just over 15,000 in 2014 to over 19,000 in early-2020—Covid-19 has laid bare the need for stepping up efforts on digital infrastructure for the judicial system.
Against 17,000 computerised district and subordinate courts, video-conferencing is available at just over 3,000 courts and just over 1,200 corresponding jails. While the government has come up with fast-track courts to hear special types of cases—from heinous crimes, crimes against women, children and senior citizens, etc—there are just over 700 of these, and, as is evident from the failure of fast-track courts in the case of matters against lawmakers, this move has been of little effect.
Given how civil cases choke the High Courts, there is a drastic need to create alternate dispute resolution mechanisms at the appellate level. The government, being the largest litigant, will also need to correct its litigation-happy approach.
For enhancing the productivity of courts, the Eco Survey identifies a few states that need special attention—UP, Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat and West Bengal—given their lower clearance rates, with vacancy at the district judiciary level being among the highest in three of these states (UP, Bihar, and Gujarat). One way to improve productivity, as the Survey suggests, would be to increase the number of working days. A special services cadre can also be created to take care of the administrative functions to resolve the backend problems at courts that contribute to pendency.