More frequent use of Suo Motu Petitions?
This post looks into more frequent use of Suo Motu petitions.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in India, the Supreme Court has relied on its suo motu jurisdiction three times already. When the Court takes suo motu cognisance of an issue, it institutes a case of its own motion. Usually, the Court only takes up cases if an aggrieved person or entity files a petition. However, in rare instances, it decides to take up issues of its own accord.
Emergence of Suo Motu cases 40 years ago
As scholar Mark Galanter has shown (see citation below), Supreme Court judges developed the Court’s suo motu jurisdiction in the aftermath of Emergency. Its development coincided with the emergence of ‘public interest litigation’ in the early 1980s. The Court actively began admitting cases with an aim of delivering justice to more disadvantaged groups. It even started the practice of allowing citizens to file cases by writing letters to the Court (letter petitions). Given this context, it was perhaps only natural that judges began to institute cases of their own motion.
One of the first instances of a suo motu case was in 1979, according to Galanter. The Court intervened in the ‘horrific blinding’ of 31 undertrial prisoners by the Bhagalpur police. However, the use of the term suo motu for these types of judicial interventions only picked up twenty years later, in the early 2000s. Galanter explains that up until around 2002, the Court only used the term to describe contempt petitions.
These days, the Court has specific case citations for suo motu cases. They are either labeled Suo Motu Writ Petitions (Civil) or Suo Motu Writ Petitions (Criminal). For example, the 2019 case pertaining to the implementation of POCSO guidelines, which we have been tracking, has the following citation: S.M.W.P. (Crl.) 1/2019. So as to avoid any confusion, contempt petitions have been given a separate citation format.
Are the number of Suo Motu Writ Petitions (SMWPs) increasing?
The Supreme Court of India’s website suggests that the number of SMWPs is increasing. As Figure 1 illustrates, there were 0 cases filed in 2010 that were classified as SMWPs. In 2015, this increased to 3 cases. Finally, in 2019 the Court instituted 8 SMWPs. Throughout the decade, the number of civil and criminal suo motu cases has been roughly the same.
We should caution that the method we used for obtaining the above data from the Supreme Court of India website may have produced inaccurate results. We used the ‘Case Status’ section of the website and searched for all SMWP – both civil and criminal – between 1 January 2010 and 31 December 2019.
There are discrepancies between these ‘Case Status’ numbers and some of the data reported in the Supreme Court of India’s Annual Report, 2018-19. As Figure 2 shows, the Annual Report lists the number of letter petitions the that have been filed over the years. In addition, it notes which of these letter petitions were registered as suo motu. In 2013, the Court registered 5 letter petitions as suo motu, however its website reports 0 SWMPs.
One possible explanation for the discrepancy may be that the Court only very recently began naming suo motu letter petitions as SWMPs. It is possible that in 2013, the 5 letter petitions registered as suo motu were simply labeled as Writ Petitions.
Clearly the letter petition data in Figure 2 tells a slightly different story than the website data in Figure 1. According to Figure 2, the number of suo motu matters has oscillated rather than continually increased. In addition to peaking in 2019, it also peaked in 2013. This data would suggest that the number of suo motu matters will start decreasing again. By contrast, Figure 1 suggests that the Court will hear more suo motu matters in the coming years.
More research needs to be done to fully capture the trends governing the Court’s suo motu jurisdiction. As of now, it is unclear whether the above data merely reflects changes in the way the Registrar is counting cases or actual changes in the number of suo motu cases judges are instituting. One thing that we can be pretty certain about however, is that the current COVID-19 outbreak will disrupt any trends from the past decade.