COVID-19 Exacerbates SC’s Pendency Crisis
Examining institution, disposal, and pendency during the COVID-19 years and the decline in the SC’s efficiency.
2020, the first year of the pandemic, disrupted the Supreme Court’s functioning. To make up for the slowing delivery of justice, the Court, under former Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde, instituted e-courts, e-filing, and a number of other mechanisms within a few months of the pandemic. Despite the Court’s attempts to adapt and maintain a semblance of normalcy, the three critical stages of a case—institution, disposal and pendency—suffered. The unprecedented halting of the Court during the first wave resulted in over 70,000 pending cases at the SC in 2021—a 30-year high.
A combined look at institution, disposal, and pendency during the COVID-19 years help us track the resultant decline in the SC’s efficiency.
Figure 1 plots institution, disposal, and pendency between 2019 to 2021. The x axis plots the years and the stages at which cases remain in the SC. The y axis plots the number of cases at each stage.
Institution of cases refers to the number of cases filed before the Supreme Court. SCO has previously reported on how the institution of cases fell drastically in 2020 and 2021.
In 2019, a total of 43,613 cases were filed. In early 2020, in response to the pandemic, the SC began functioning in a limited capacity, and only took up ‘urgent matters’.
Due to the initial absence of a robust e-filing system, the number of cases filed in the SC nearly halved when physical access to the SC was stopped. The numbers speak for themselves: 25,897 cases were filed in 2020, with this figure dropping to 23,093 in 2021.
These limitations naturally affected the SC’s ability to hear and clear cases. Data from the Supreme Court Annual Report indicates that the SC disposed of 20,670 cases in 2020 and 18,257 cases in 2021—a sharp fall from the 41,100 cases it disposed of in 2019. Worryingly, over 90% of the cases that the Court disposed of in 2021 were at the admissions stage. This means that a majority of the SC’s time is spent disposing of cases that do not involve a substantial question of law.
Although the number of cases filed before the SC fell during the pandemic years, its disposal rate fell even further, causing the marked increase in the number of cases pending before the Court that we see today. In 2019 around 60,000 cases were pending at the SC. COVID-19-related delays seem to have added another 10,000 cases to an already daunting backlog.
In 2021, the clearance rate—which indicates the pace at which a court is disposing of cases—dropped to its lowest in 33 years. Despite the temporary slowing down of the pandemic in 2021, the effects of 2020 continue to seep into the Court’s functioning. With pendency still at a record-high four months into 2022, concerted action is required to address mounting files at the SC.