Even in normal times, the Indian judicial system has a staggering backlog of cases. The coronavirus pandemic has made this worse.

This year, the number of cases disposed by courts has plummeted, according to data from the National Judicial Data Grid, an online resource maintained by the Union Ministry of Law and Justice.

The average number of cases disposed every month by High Courts has fallen by 50%, while subordinate courts have seen an even sharper drop by 70%.

Data is not available for the Supreme Court of India. But, according to analysis by the Supreme Court Observer, a legal archives website, the court delivered just 355 orders in April 2020, a fraction of the 10,586 orders delivered in April 2018 and 12,084 orders in April 2019.

Pandemic impact

India went under complete lockdown on March 24 to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Supreme Court discontinued normal functioning and decided to take up only urgent matters. The hearings moved to video conferencing, with the court slowly ramping up the number of cases heard over the last five months.

Following the footsteps of the Supreme Court, the High Courts and subordinate courts too moved work to video conferencing. Like the Supreme Court, several High Court, despite protests in states like Assam, have decided to restart physical hearings in September.

On Sunday, at the launch of the Supreme Court e-committee website, Justice DY Chandrachud said district courts in India had disposed over 12 lakh cases between March 28 and August 28. This was an achievement, he said, in view of the impact of the coronavirus lockdowns.

But the number does not make sense in isolation. How does it compare with 2019?

Data from the National Judicial Data Grid shows subordinate courts disposed 148 lakh cases in 2019. This has dropped to 44 lakh cases disposed until August 31 this year. While the subordinate courts cleared an average of 1,234,071 cases every month in 2019, this year the average has come down to 3,67,962 cases every month – a drop of 70%.

Data for 2020 till August.

The High Courts disposed 4.63 lakh cases until August 31 – a fraction of 16.03 lakh cases disposed last year. The average number of cases disposed every month was 66,256 cases, which is less than half the average for 2019 (133,654 cases a month).

Data for 2020 till August.

The Supreme Court’s website shows only the number of pending cases. On March 1, the Supreme Court had 60,469 cases pending. On July 1, the latest data available, the figure stood at 60,444. However, this does not mean that the court disposed only 25 cases in four months. The figures are adjusted every month to include both new admissions and disposals.

After months of conducting hearings over video conferences, on Monday, the Supreme Court released standard operating procedures for physical hearings, which are set to begin in September.