The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the functioning of courts as the increase in number of pending cases at every level of the judicial system reached in an all time high. A year of virtual functioning was a major reason behind this.
According to the official judicial data monitoring system, National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG), the number of pending cases in district courts saw a steep rise of 18.2% between December 31, 2019 and December 31, 2020, the Indian Express reported. Compared to this, in 2018-2019, the rise was 7.79%, and in 2017-2018 it was 11.6%. Currently, 2.7 crore cases that are more than one year old are pending at district and taluka courts.
Case pendency also increased in the 25 high courts across India by as much as 20.4%, in 2019-20, whereas it had increased merely 5.3% in 2018-19. Over 50 lakh cases pending at the high court level are more than a year old. Moreover, several high courts are also short staffed with Patna High Court topping the list with 60.4% vacancy in sanctioned strength of judges, followed by Calcutta High Court with 55.6% vacancy.
Meanwhile, the country’s top court, saw an increase of 10.4% in pendency of cases, with a backlog of 66,727 cases as of March this year -- the highest ever backlog in the history of the Supreme Court. In the same period in 2019-20, the increase was of 4.6%, the Indian Express reported.
A special Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde on Thursday observed that pendency of cases has “gone out of control”. CJI Bobde said in his opening remark, “There are High Courts where pendency of cases are gone beyond control. There are Criminal Appeals in the High Courts of North India which are pending for about more than 30 years.” The Special Bench was hearing a PIL seeking directions for the appointment of ad-hoc judges to deal with the problem of long-pendency of cases. The bench held that they would lay down the guidelines for the appointment of ad-hoc judges in the High Court which are going to be of flexible nature.
The sharp increase in case pendency took place despite the Supreme Court functioning for increased hours in the virtual mode.
On January 28, the 71st anniversary of the Supreme Court's inaugural sitting, the apex court released a statement highlighting its commitment to provide access to justice during the pandemic. “Beyond the usual minimum required 190 days Court sittings in a Calendar Year, the Court was functional for 231 days, including 13 vacation sittings in the year 2020,” it said. The SC Registry also remained functional for 271 days as against an average of 268 days in the previous three years, the statement added.