Pendency at the Supreme Court: Half-Yearly Trends (2023)
The decline in half-year pendency numbers is a hopeful sign that pendency may drop further in 2023.
The first half of 2023 has been kind to the daunting number of cases pending at the Supreme Court. Typically, the first half of the calendar year shows an increase in pendency. This year, for the first time in five years, the number of pending cases has dropped in this period.
This progress is particularly impressive, considering that the court also dedicated this time to hearing Constitution Bench (CB) cases. In this Half-yearly review of pendency, we track this progress and examine what it tells us about the Court’s functioning.
Pendency in 2023: January to May
Figure 1 tracks the number of cases from January to May 2023*. From over 69,511 cases at the beginning of the year, the number of pending cases dropped to 68,300 in April. The drop in pendency remained consistent and rapid in this period. In May, it took a sharp turn and increased by about 400 cases. In this 5 month period, pendency fell by 766 cases.
Remarkably, this declining trend occurred in the midst of considerable Constitution Bench (CB) activity. In 5 months alone, the SC conducted 55 Constitution bench proceedings. Constitution Benches occupy five or more judges at a time. Some concerns of CBs have been that they require too much time, and too many judges, and hinders smaller benches from convening simultaneously. However, the trends this year so far, may put these concerns to bed temporarily.
In the same month where pendency fell the sharpest—between February (69,379 cases) and April (68,310)—the SC conducted 26 CB proceedings and pronounced 5 CB judgements. Notably, the SC was functioning at full capacity in February, with the appointment of seven new judges. This may have had a positive impact on the overall pendency numbers.
However, the decreasing trend in pending cases was interrupted in May—pendency rose by 435 cases. This may be attributed to the SC’s summer vacation, which commenced on May 22nd. We expect that this increase will persist throughout June until the SC resumes activities on July 3rd.
Half-Year Pendency Trends: 2019-2023
Figure 2 indicates the half-yearly trends in the last five years.
Half-yearly trends between 2019 and 2022 show a steady rise in pendency in the first half of the year. On average, pendency in these years rose by 1,595 cases between the Christmas and summer breaks. Between 2020 and 2022, pendency of cases suffered greatly from erratic hearings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2023, however, this trend was reversed with a 766 case drop in the corresponding period.
Is the first half of 2023 an anomaly? Does it indicate a more robust functioning of the Court, offering hope for the rest of the year?
*based on data available as on June 14th, 2023.