New Delhi: These are busy times for the Supreme Court. From Aadhaar to Ayodhya, the apex court is poised to deliver verdicts that could change the Indian society. However, beyond the headline cases, the court is also hearing several other, more mundane cases. This is part of a broader trend in increased Supreme Court activity that has seen nearly two million cases disposed and more than 50,000 judgements delivered since its inception.

A disposed case is when all court proceedings are complete and either a verdict is delivered, or as in most Supreme Court cases, the case is dismissed without a hearing. In terms of disposed cases per judge, a rough proxy for output that adjusts for the changing size of the apex court, productivity has steadily increased over time (Chart 1). Yet the Supreme Court continues to be plagued by pending cases.

Latest figures reveal that there are 54,013 pending matters in the Supreme Court. To put this in perspective, if the Supreme Court refused to admit any new cases, it would still take more than two years to just clear all pending regular hearings (assuming it continues its 2017 pace of disposal). This backlog is just the tip of the Indian judiciary’s backlog problem, as this column has highlighted before. Just in the high courts, at the end of 2017, there were more than 4.2 million pending cases (compared with 1.6 million cases disposed in the year).

Taken together, pending cases significantly delay the delivery of justice. In a forthcoming paper, Aparna Chandra of the National Law University and her co-authors show that, on average, Supreme Court hearings took more than four years to complete. Including the time taken from the case’s filing at the lower courts, complete closure took more than 13 years.

According to several legal scholars, the Supreme Court’s pendency problem originated in the late 1970s. In response to criticism for its passive role in the Emergency, the court became more active, taking on more cases. In the decade before the Emergency, the Supreme Court disposed on average 6,538 cases a year with an annual backlog of around 10,000 cases.

In the decade after the Emergency, this ratio increased. Average annual disposed cases rose to 28,264 with the backlog building to 63,424 cases (Chart 2) which peaked in 1991 at more than 100,000 pending cases.

In 1993, the court began reclassifying cases. Similar cases were clubbed together, resulting in an immediate drop in the backlog. However, since then, even as more cases are disposed, the backlog has kept pace.

The Supreme Court’s increased activity is being driven by appeals from lower courts.

In our analysis examining the judgements between 2005 and 2017 (much of the data before that is unclassified), we find that the bulk of the Supreme Court’s workload, in terms of judgements, focuses on appeals from high courts (93% of judgements) and in particular civil appeals (64%) (Chart 3). In contrast, writ petitions, which are filed for a violation of fundamental rights, are less prominent, accounting for 4% of all judgements. In a 2013 paper, Nick Robinson, a legal scholar, argues that the Supreme Court hears more appeals as a way to actively police the high courts and the lower judiciary who they fear may be incompetent, corrupt or biased.

Among appeals from high courts, some high courts are represented disproportionately in Supreme Court judgements. In theory, if all high courts perform similarly, the number of appeals from each high court should simply be proportionate to the number of cases the high court hears.

Aggregating all judgements from the country’s high courts, we find that India’s oldest high courts (Madras, Bombay and Allahabad) account for a bulk of the Supreme Court’s appeal judgements (Chart 4). Adjusting for the number of judgements they deliver, these high courts are over-represented, possibly suggesting unequal access to the Supreme Court.

Many of these trends are well-acknowledged. The 229th Law Commission report proposed establishing separate benches to hear appeals and constitutional matters. The report also suggested the establishment of regional Supreme Court benches to hear appeals from high courts. However, these reforms, like the many cases in the Supreme Court, remain pending.

This is the concluding part of a two-part data journalism series on the Supreme Court.

Part 1: The most influential judgements in Supreme Court’s history

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