Are People Filing Fewer Cases at the SC Since COVID?
The number of cases filed at the SC in 2022 has begun to return to pre-pandemic numbers, as SC’s measures to provide access take root.
In November this year, CJI D.Y. Chandrachud was hearing a petition asking the SC to increase the number of Judges at the top Court from 34 to 70, to tackle the SC’s crippling pendency concerns. Exasperated by this ‘simplistic’ solution to the problem, CJI Chandrachud pointed out that the issues lay elsewhere. He remarked the people had ‘widened access to the Supreme Court to a point that is becoming dysfunctional’.
The Indian Supreme Court is burdened with 69,598 pending cases. A big part of that problem, as the CJI pointed out, is the number of cases filed in the Supreme Court. Its wide powers to hear cases welcomes a variety of petitioners and issues, often admitting more cases than it clears. In the COVID-19 years, the number of cases ‘instituted’ at the SC saw some decline for a number of reasons. However, data from this year indicates that the ‘COVID Slump’ may slowly be recovering.
What Does Institution of Cases Mean?
Institution of cases refers to the number of cases filed at the Supreme Court. When a case is first filed, the Supreme Court Registry reviews it to check for procedural defects. If it considers the case free from procedural defects, the SC will conduct a hearing to decide if it must be ‘admitted’ for ‘regular’ hearings on the merits of the case. In the ‘admission’ stage, the Court will look for whether the case concerns a substantial question of law, and if it requires the SC’s intervention. In the ‘regular’ stage, it hears arguments in the admitted cases. Hearings in both these stages are considered in an overall assessment of the institution of cases at the Court.
Number of Cases Filed in 2022
Figure 1 tracks the total number of cases filed at the Supreme Court in 2022. A total of 28,651* cases were filed in 2022, compared to 18,257** in 2021 and 15,282** in 2020. The number of cases filed at the Supreme Court had fallen drastically in the COVID-19 years. People had reduced access to the Court during the lockdowns and were unable to file cases in-person. COVID-19 induced concerns in income in households may also have contributed to the fall in institution numbers.
To tackle the issue of access to the Court, the SC updated its e-filing mechanisms on April 9th, 2021. Though this move towards digitisation was met with some hesitance, e-filing rapidly gained popularity among lawyers. It was also lauded for increasing access for applicants pan India, who no longer had to travel to Delhi to file documents.
January began with 2,321 cases instituted at the Supreme Court. Institution of cases slowly rose until March (3,240 cases) and remained relatively stable till May (2,866 cases). As the Court went into summer vacation between May 23rd to July 9th, institution numbers dropped. June, which marks the middle of the Court’s 7-week long vacation, recorded the lowest point (296 cases) in the number of cases recorded at the SC.
As the second half of the year began, institution numbers saw an interesting rise. The Supreme Court saw three different Chief Justices between August and December. CJI N.V. Ramana retired in August and was succeeded for a 2.5-month period by former CJI U.U. Lalit. Upon being appointed as the Chief Justice on August 27th, CJI Lalit assured litigants that fresh matters would be listed for hearings within a week of their verification by the Registry. These assurances may have perhaps influenced the 59% spike in the institution of cases from 2,578 cases in August to 4,090 cases in September. Such a trend has not been observed in the past five years.
CJI D.Y. Chandrachud, who took oath on November 9th, also made changes in the listing process—specifically, an automatic system for the listing of cases by the Registry. However, as post-October data is unavailable in the Supreme Court’s Annual Report, the impact of his changes in the listing process is unknown.
Trends in the Number of Cases Filed in the last 5 Years
As Figure 2. shows, 2022 began with the lowest number of cases (2,321) instituted in the last five years. Monthly institution of cases across the last five years follows a similar pattern, most notably a stark dip in the filing of cases during the Court’s summer vacation. 2020 and 2021 are exceptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the Court’s calendar. The SC’s functioning was severely restricted during the COVID years and the Court did not follow its usual vacation dates. From March 13th 2020 to April 18th, the SC only took up ‘urgent’ matters. In 2021, the SC’s summer vacation lasted from May 10th to June 28th.
Comparing the total number of cases instituted in each of the last five years is difficult as monthly data provided by the SC is inconsistent. Data for 2020 and 2021 is available for the first nine months. For 2018, 2019 and 2022 data is available for the first 10 months of the year. We, therefore, rely on the average monthly institution to compare data across the years. In 2022, an average of 2,865 per month were instituted at the SC—slightly higher than the corresponding averages in 2020 (1,960 cases per month) and 2021 (2,566 cases per month).
Comparing 2022 to the Pre-COVID-19 Years
Despite measures to provide access to the SC, 2022’s institution numbers lagged behind corresponding stats in the pre-COVID years of 2018 and 2019. An average of 3,374 cases per month were instituted in 2018. In 2019, this number stood at 3,717 cases per month.
Figure 2 depicts the Court’s journey to normalcy following the two ‘COVID years’ of 2020 and 2021. While the institution of cases in 2022 began at a relatively lower point with only 2,321 cases instituted in January. The third quarter of the year paints a slightly more optimistic picture with institution numbers falling in the same ballpark as the pre-COVID years of 2018 and 2019.
The possibility of another wave of the pandemic may cause interesting changes in 2023. Visit SCO’s Court Data page for updates throughout the year.
*data for 2022 is available only until October.
**data for 2020 and 2021 is available only until September.