Supreme Court pronounced close to 1,000 judgments in cases of varied subject matters between January and November 2018.
The year 2018 kept India’s Supreme Court in the headlines like never before. While sensational cases like Sabarimala, Rafale, Ayodhya were closely followed, not much attention was given to how the Supreme Court handled routine cases in its docket.
The Supreme Court pronounced close to 1,000 judgments in cases of varied subject matters between January and November 2018. It is interesting to note the years in which these cases were filed:
Table 1. Year of filing
In Table 1, 60 per cent of the judgments rendered were in cases filed over the past four years. However, some cases have taken well over 10 years to be disposed off. While chief justices have deliberated the problem of subordinate courts having cases pending for over 10 years, it is perhaps time for the Supreme Court to lead by example and take an active effort to decide cases that have been pending for a long time. As per information provided to the ministry of law and justice, around one-third of the cases pending at the Supreme Court have been pending for over five years.
A look at the subject matter of the judgments pronounced and the time they took to dispose will help us understand what kind of cases the court dealt with:
Table 2. Subject matter of cases decided
In Table 2, the largest number of judgments pertains to criminal matters and ordinary civil matters, with such cases taking 1,697 days and 2,041 days respectively on average to be disposed off. The category of cases, which took the most amount of time to be disposed off in the Supreme Court were direct tax matters, with these cases taking 2,377 days (6.5 years) on average to be disposed off. However, a lack of publicly available aggregated data on the cases pending before the Supreme Court hinders a more meaningful understanding of the workload and time spent by the court on adjudication of matters before it.
Now, let’s look at the nature of disposal in the judgments pronounced to understand what the Supreme Court has spent its time on:
Table 3. Nature of disposal
In Table 3, a substantial number of decisions (231 judgments) were in cases that were dismissed, with those cases taking 2,299 days on average to be disposed off. In order to understand what type of cases take a long time to be dismissed, we must look at the subject matter of these cases:
Table 4. Subject matter of dismissed cases
Table 4 shows that the highest number of dismissed cases pertains to criminal matters. Criminal matters are a category that has far higher costs to those involved when compared to any other class of cases. The category of dismissed cases that took the longest amount of time to be disposed off are cases pertaining to ‘family and personal law matters’ and ‘land acquisition, requisition, land law, and agricultural tenancy matters’, with these cases taking over 10 years to be dismissed.
The problems plaguing the judicial system are often seen from the perspective of the subordinate courts, as they are the courts of first instance and the vast bulk of litigation lies before them. However, the problems that stem from judicial delay are several folds worse by the time a matter goes through the judicial system and reaches the Supreme Court – this makes the need to ensure timely adjudication at the apex court equally important. The Supreme Court must make the best use of its resources to analyse its functioning, adopt better listing practices, make a targeted attempt to adjudicate matters that have been pending for a long time, encourage dialogue by making data publicly available, and serve as an example to restore the faith of the general populace in the only adjudicatory system that upholds the rule of law.
The author is graduate of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore and works at DAKSH as a research associate.