Top-heavy justice

The Supreme Court workload is overflowing, and litigants often bypass the lower judiciary

Something troubling is happening in the upper judiciary. The system of precedent seems to be breaking down. To understand this problem, three numbers speak volumes. Between 2005 and 2010 (the last year we have complete data), the number of cases disposed of by all the high courts increased by about 25 per cent (to about 17 lakh). Meanwhile, during the same period, the number of cases that were appealed to the Supreme Court increased by 52 per cent (to around 43,000) and the number of cases the Court accepted for regular hearing increased by 70 per cent (to 8824).

Why are these three numbers so worrisome? The concern is not that the caseload is increasing. A healthy judicial system should be able to absorb more cases, and there is strong evidence that the states in India that are more prosperous produce more litigation. So, higher litigation rates may counter-intuitively be a positive sign.

The problem is different. The Indian judicial system is supposed to look like a pyramid. The Supreme Court at the top sets precedent for the high courts and subordinate courts below it. Under this same logic, the workload of the judicial system should also look like a pyramid, with the most cases in the lower courts. The least amount of work should be at the Supreme Court, where judges hear the legally most important matters and correct erring lower courts.

In India, there are still far more cases at the bottom of the system than at the top, but what is telling is that the workload at the top is growing faster than at the bottom — far faster. In fact, the number of cases instituted in the subordinate courts grew by only about 4 per cent from 2005 to 2010. The high courts saw exponentially more growth and the Supreme Court even more. Litigants are rushing to the top of the system, not the bottom. People are bypassing the lower judiciary whenever they can to bring their cases directly to the high courts. And in recent years, litigants have not stopped there. Appeals from the high courts to the Supreme Court are disproportionately increasing.

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