India Justice Report on the Judiciary: Average case pendency in subordinate courts is 5 years

Meera Emmanuel November 8 2019
Indian Judiciary

The recently unveiled India Justice Report 2019 makes pertinent observations on aspects of judicial case disposal, vacancies, infrastructure and diversity, among other issues in its chapter on the Indian Judiciary.

For the purpose of the study, states were classified into three categories:

  • Large and mid sized states
  • Small states (Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Tripura, Sikkim Goa, Mizoram)
  • Unranked states (Manipur, Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland)
  • This apart, a separate category was maintained for Union Territories

Highlights of the report on the state of the Indian Judiciary (at the High Court and subordinate court levels) include the following.

Judiciary remains low priority in Budget allocation

As noted in the study, spending for the judicial set up is shared by the government at both the Central and State levels, "with the concerned state government funding the lion’s share." However, the Judiciary remains a low priority when it comes to state funding. Illustratively, the study notes,

"On average, no state or UT apart from Delhi spent even 1 per cent of its budget on the judiciary. Nationally, India spends 0.08 per cent. All states combined (excluding the central government) spent 0.54 per cent of their total expenditure on the judiciary in 2015–2016. Just one state/UT spent more than 1 per cent, which was Delhi, with 1.9 per cent. Beyond Delhi, the percentage of budget spent on judiciary ranged from 0.1 per cent (Arunachal Pradesh) to 0.96 per cent (Punjab). There were eighteen states spending between 0.5 per cent and 1 per cent on the judiciary, including thirteen from our large and mid-size states."

Working of Courts: No significant improvement in key parameters overall

With respect to the functioning of courts in India, the study focused on case pendency, judicial vacancies and case clearance rates. Case pendency was measured per judge and in terms of overall case pendency at the court. All parameters were studied at the High Court level as well as at the level of subordinate courts. Additionally, the parameter of change in judiciary spend to state spend was also measured. 

The chart below presents a graphic picture of how large and mid-size states have performed over a 5-year period between 2012 and 2017 on these parameters.

As depicted above, of the states falling under the category of large and mid sized states, Tamil Nadu was found to have improved in terms of most of the selected indicators (7/9). The two categories it was found to have worsened in were Judge Vacancy at the High Court level and budget allocation. 

The States of Gujarat, Odisha and West Bengal followed, with 6 of 9 indicators found to have improved.

Notably, the study reveals that the case pendency before subordinate courts in West Bengal stood at 0. Significant improvement was also noted in terms of other parameters studied with respect to the State. The report states,

Courts across states and UTs have been struggling to improve on key capacity metrics. Of the 25 ranked states, West Bengal was the only one to have significantly improved.

The study, however, made note that such quantitative analysis cannot be construed in simple terms to rank one state over the other when it comes to evaluating the efficacy of courts.

"It would be simplistic to draw conclusions and correlations between any two states on their respective performance on static or trend indicators because, of a total 24 indicators, five- year data was available for only 9. In addition to this statistical limitation, the intrinsically complex nature of the judiciary and its various functions precludes any simple conclusions based only on quantitative analysis." 

Glass Ceiling yet to be broken

On the topic of gender diversity in the Indian Judiciary, the report states,

"Unfortunately, despite wide acceptance of the value of gender diversity, the actual presence of women in state judiciaries is underwhelming"

7 states and 1 Union Territory were found to have no women judges in their High Court Benches.

At the subordinate court level,  among large/mid-sized states, Telangana is found to have to the largest share of women judges at 44%. However, the study makes note of a general pattern where the proportion of women judges drop when it comes to the subordinate court level across all states, except for Tamil Nadu.

For instance, in Telangana, the share of women judges at the High Court level drops to 10 per cent. Similarly, Punjab, with 39 per cent at the subordinate level, drops down to 12 per cent in the High Court. However, an exception has been noted when it comes to Tamil Nadu. The report notes,

"This pattern is apparent everywhere, with only Tamil Nadu breaking the trend with a high number of women at the High Court level (19.6 per cent), and more women than its quota of 35 per cent in the subordinate courts."

The report goes on to note that no state has adopted affirmative action for women judges in High Courts.

At the subordinate level, however, the States of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Telangana and Uttarakhand provide for reservations in the subordinate judiciary.

As regards notable gender demographics in other states, the report states,

"Among the small states, Meghalaya (74 per cent) and Goa (66 per cent) had the largest share of women judges at the subordinate courts level. However, Goa’s share at the High Court level was just 12.68 per cent.

Sikkim, an outlier, demonstrates a high share of women at both levels, with 64.71 per cent in the High Court and 33.33 per cent at the subordinate court level. In terms of absolute numbers, however, this would be 1 female judge of 3, at the High Court-level, and 11 female judges out of 17 at the level of subordinate courts."

No High Court/Subordinate Court in the country is working at full capacity

The study notes that there is not a single court in the country that is working at full capacity.

"Not a single High Court or state’s subordinate judiciary had reached its complete complement of sanctioned judicial posts...Each of our eighteen large and mid-sized states had High Court judge vacancies of above 25 per cent i.e. 1 in every 4 sanctioned High Court judge positions had not been filled...

...Even in states where judges are most needed, vacancies were on the rise. For example, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, two of the five states with the highest number of pending cases, also showed subordinate court vacancies growing over 5 years (financial year 2013–2014 to 2016–2017)."

The report goes on to note that between 2012 and 2017, there has been more improvement in addressing the issue at the subordinate court level, rather than at the High Court level.

"In general, in the five-year period from 2012-2013 to 2016-2017, states had done better in reducing judge vacancies at lower levels than High Court levels. Eight states had reduced vacancies at the lower levels, but only three had done so at the High Court level. Gujarat and Rajasthan were the only two states to have reduced at both levels, but still had vacancies. Gujarat had 35 per cent judge vacancy in its subordinate courts and 39 per cent in its High Court. Rajasthan had 12 per cent judge vacancy in its subordinate courts and 35 per cent in its High Court."

The judge-to-litigant ratio also remains a problem, if the national average is looked at.

"At an all-India level, in twenty-seven states and UTs, there is just one subordinate court judge for over 50,000 people. This includes seventeen of the eighteen large and mid-sized states, where 90 per cent of the country’s population resides. But in five of these states, the ratio exceeds one judge per lakh population at the subordinate court level."

The report also cautioned that a higher number of judges to deal with caseload did not necessarily result in expeditious disposal of cases.

"For example, among the large and mid-sized states, at the subordinate courts level, judges in Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh had the lowest case load: 750 and 824 cases pending per judge respectively. Yet they were taking, on average, about 6 years to settle a case. In contrast, Uttarakhand and Punjab had a slightly higher case load (867 and 958 respectively) but were taking 4 years on average to settle a case."

Similar examples were given by comparing the judge/population ratio and case pendency rate in Goa and Mizoram, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu.

"Since average pendency is influenced by multiple factors— such as the dominant type of cases being filed, the rate of institution of cases etc.—it is entirely possible a court has the capacity to handle its docket despite a shortfall of judges", the report observes.

Judicial vacancies and court infrastructure

The report states that if the courts were to work at full capacity across India, there would be a shortfall of 4,071 court halls. The existing number of court halls is more than enough to accommodate the working strength of the judiciary, as it stood on March 2018.

"Looked at nationally, as of March 2018, the number of existing court halls is sufficient for the current working strength of judges. In fact, there is a 11.3 per cent surplus.  But when compared with the sanctioned strength, that 11.3 per cent surplus turns into an 18 per cent deficit."

However, if the sanctioned strength of judges in each state were met, the study has found that only four states would have sufficient court rooms. In other words, 24 states would face a shortage of court halls if their sanctioned strength was met. Further only two Union Territories would have sufficient courtrooms in a similar scenario.

The Centre's present plans to add to court infrastructure would not help in addressing this hypothetical shortfall either. In this regard, the report notes,

"The centre had set a target of completing the construction of 2,730 court halls within the financial year 2018–19. Going into the next decade, India will still be short by half of what it needs in the way of court rooms. The slow pace of building new courtrooms will influence the pace of judge recruitment, and if any state revises the sanctioned number of judges upwards and actually fills the posts any time in the near future, the shortage of court halls will become ever more acute."

Workload on the rise

Case clearance rates and case pendency determines the workload of courts. On an average, a case remains pending for 5 years at the subordinate level, the report has found. At the High Court level, case disposal was found to be the slowest in Uttar Pradesh (with 4.3 year average case pendency period).

Overall, the number of cases pending in Indian courts is on the rise, states the report. It goes on to explain,

"One measure of change in the number of pending cases is the clearance rate. If a state disposes at least as many cases as it receives in a year, it is not adding to its pending workload. Only five High Courts managed this; in the states of Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh, and Tripura.

At the subordinate court level, only eight states and UTs qualified; namely Gujarat, Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Tripura, Odisha, Lakshadweep, Tamil Nadu, and Manipur.  On a five-year basis, the picture is only slightly better: only seven of the eighteen states have managed to lower the number of pending cases in subordinate courts and six of eighteen in High Courts."

However, some states were found more diligent than others in clearing cases.  At the subordinate court level, Odisha, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat were found to have cleared as many cases in a year as the number that came in, so the arrears did not grow larger with each year.

Himachal Pradesh was found to have a high clearance rate as well (109%). However, its high average case pendency rate of 3 years added to its backlog. On the other hand, Sikkim and Mizoram had a low clearance rate, despite having a lower workload than the large and mid-sized states.

"These states along with Uttar Pradesh (90.48 per cent), Uttarakhand (87 per cent), and Bihar (87 per cent) with their low clearance rates at the subordinate courts, are bound to remain beleaguered with backlog for many years to come. Despite a high clearance rate (106 per cent), 38 per cent of subordinate court cases in Odisha lingered for more than 5 years and some even beyond 10."

Notably, it was also observed,

"Alarmingly, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Odisha, Gujarat along with Meghalaya and Andaman and Nicobar Islands had at least one in every four, or 25 per cent of all cases, pending for more than 5 years."

[Read the India Justice Report on the Judiciary below]

India Justice Report 2019-Judiciary