Pendency remains hurdle to Supreme Court’s role as timely protector of citizens’ rights

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Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud. File

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud. File
| Photo Credit: PTI

Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud has said the very purpose of the Supreme Court is to hear every little cry for personal liberty and protection of fundamental rights.

But pendency is a perennial drawback that affects the court’s role as the timely protector of citizens’ rights.

Law Minister Kiren Rijiju has reportedly said the court is bogged down by “frivolous” public interest litigations and bail applications. The “extra burden” has reduced the efficacy of justice administration. The government’s zeroing in on bail applications as one of the reasons for slow justice comes at a time when 10 bail pleas are heard every day by all 13 Benches of the Supreme Court. The CJI has made it clear that bail petitions deal with the question of personal liberty and should not be delayed.

Moreover, PILs like the one for an independent and neutral mechanism for appointment of Election Commissioners have raised important issues, with a Constitution Bench recently pointing out orally how the government is paying mere “lip-service” to the independence of the poll body by appointing bureaucrats who cannot even complete the statutory six-year tenure in office.

But the statistics do show pendency as a constantly looming shadow, threatening to engulf the good work.

In fact, an exasperated Chief Justice Chandrachud in November had remarked that “widened access to the Supreme Court” is making things dysfunctional. The Chief Justice said the judiciary is “overburdened because of the system”.

Figures in the Parliament reveal that there are 498 Constitution Bench cases pending in the Supreme Court as on December 13, 2022.

Public litigations claim a large portion of the court’s space with 2,870 of them pending. Special leave petitions and writ petitions amount to 4,331 and 2,209, respectively, of the court’s pendency.

There are 487 pending election matters in the top court. The total number of pending cases concerning crimes against women relating to “harassment, dowry cruelty and death, eve teasing, domestic violence” are 283 according to data from the Integrated Case Management Information System. Some of these cases date back to 2014. Incidentally, contempt of court cases alone number 1,295 in the Supreme Court as on December 16, 2022.

The statistics placed on record by the Law Ministry in Parliament show that the Supreme Court has disposed off 10 Constitution Bench cases in 2022 as on December 13; a substantial 29,866 special leave petitions; 974 PILs, which is about double the number of PILs disposed last year; 1,316 writ petitions; 286 election cases and 1,590 contempt matters.

In its reply in the Lok Sabha on December about the “reasons behind the delay in disposing of cases”, the Law Ministry said it was a “multi-faceted problem”.

“With an increase in the population of the country and awareness among the public about their rights, filing of fresh cases is also increasing by leaps and bounds, year after year. Each case is distinct and variable in nature, therefore, no specific timelines can be determined concerning disposal of cases. Myriad factors come into play,” the Ministry said.

Vacancies of judges, frequent adjournments and lack of adequate arrangements to monitor, track and bunch cases for hearing are also factors which lead to pendency.

The Ministry said timely disposal of cases would involve various factors, including availability of adequate number of judges and judicial officers, supporting court staff and physical infrastructure, complexity of facts involved, nature of evidence, cooperation of stakeholders and proper application of rules and procedures.

The government has however acknowledged that the Supreme Court is working towards reduction of pendency in a “multi-pronged” fashion by constituting Vacation Benches in the summer break, formation of Special Benches to dispose of labour disputes, cases dealing with motor accidents, direct taxes, indirect taxes and old criminal appeals.

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