On July 6, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Zee TV journalist Rohit Ranjan’s petition challenging multiple first information reports against him within one day. However, in a previous instance, where freelance journalist Siddique Kappan was arrested, his petition for bail was effectively heard by the court after a delay of more than six months.

These examples illustrate a controversial point about how the Supreme Court works: in some instances, the court may hear a matter urgently, whereas in others, it may take months before a matter is listed.

The Supreme Court offers no justification for this with the institution having no objective process that determines when a case is listed. While certain guidelines have been laid down for listing cases, many lawyers and even judges complain that the Supreme Court’s listing process is arbitrary.

The listing process is important since the Supreme Court has a substantial backlog and several cases of national importance have been pending now for years.

Journalist Rohit Ranjan's plea was listed within one day of filing the petition. Credit: Rohit Ranjan via Twitter

What are the steps in getting a petition listed at the Supreme Court?

First, a party files a petition either physically at the Supreme Court’s filing counter or through the court’s website. After this, the Supreme Court registry – the court’s administrative side that receives and processes documents – examines the petition for any defects in following the court rules and practices. After defects are communicated to the parties, they ordinarily have 28 days to correct these defects.

Lawyers Scroll.in spoke to said that petitions without any defects are rare.

Once defects are corrected, the matter is registered before the court and the party gets a petition number.

After this the case gets sent for verification, where the registry scrutinises it and also looks at various things such as whether the petition is time-barred and if similar such matters are pending. After verification, the matter is sent to the listing section, which assigns a date on which it will be heard. Benches are earmarked for different types of case types. Based on this, a petition is assigned to a bench.

On the date of the first hearing, the bench hearing the matter may, depending on the petition, admit it or give a notice to the other side to respond.

The entire process can take around seven to 10 days in routine cases, lawyers say, assuming parties cure defects within a day and the registry finds no issues in the petition.

Once a matter is admitted and regular hearings begin, then it is listed in chronological order, unless the court assigns a specific date for it.

How are some cases listed faster?

In case parties are in urgent need of relief, a process called “mentioning” is used to expedite the process. Under this, lawyers can approach a designated Supreme Court registrar for early listing. If the registrar refuses, they can mention the matter before the chief justice at 10.30 am, when court begins.

While the Supreme Court introduced an automated listing system in 2019, the chief justice, being the master of the court’s roster, has full discretion in how cases are listed and may list certain cases on priority.

In 2018, four Supreme Court judges complained that the chief justice was assigning important cases in an arbitrary manner.Credit: Ravi Choudhary/PTI

What are the difficulties in listing cases?

Various steps of the listing process, such as verification and mentioning, are opaque.

“Given the various steps involved in the verification of the case,” Talha Abdul Rahman, an advocate on record told Scroll.in, “which are not trackable on the website, it is hard to identify what causes delay.”

He continued, “It [verification] can take anywhere from one day to several days,” and a follow-up by a lawyer might be required.

Certain sensitive matters, say relating to the government or politicians or politicised crimes such as lynching, may have difficulty in getting listed and invariably need mentioning at least once, he said.

Even after mentioning, a matter may not get listed. For instance, the petitions against the hijab ban in Karnataka has been pending at the verification stage despite the matter being mentioned in April, a lawyer told Scroll.in. On Wednesday, the chief justice agreed to list the matter in one week.

The process to mention cases is also not consistent. The rules keep on being updated and lawyers may be asked to approach different Supreme Court officials in different instances.

What are some controversies around listing?

Several lawyers have alleged that Supreme Court listing is an arbitrary process.

In 2020, Dushyant Dave, the then president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, wrote a letter to Chief Justice NV Ramana complaining that the court selectively lists cases. Dave pointed out that a petition by Republic TV’s Arnab Goswami was listed within a day without asking for defects to be cured while many urgent matters remained pending for months without the Supreme Court listing them. This gave the impression that “clients represented by certain lawyers are getting special treatment”, he added.

It is not just lawyers, even Supreme Court judges have complained about the listing process.

In 2018, four judges held a press conference against Dipak Misra, the chief justice then where they complained that cases of far-reaching consequences for the nation were being assigned to selective benches of the chief’s preference without any rational basis.

Judges have also ordered inquiries in certain listing lapses. For instance, in 2021, a two-judge bench called for an explanation from the registry when a case filed by Prashant Bhushan asking for a stay on contempt proceedings was not listed before a bench that was hearing similar matters.

Sometimes judges themselves have expressed shock at the opaque process. Recently, in at least two instances, the court’s registry did not list matters even after a bench gave orders. Technically it may not be wrong, as the chief justice has the power to determine listing. However, lawyers and judges expressed surprise at this as it went against the norms usually followed. “How can the Registrar (Judicial) say the matter will not be listed, after we have directed?” a bench asked on June 28.