Thursday, February 19, 2009

Supreme Court's Annual Report (07-08): A quick appraisal

At its website, the Supreme Court of India has published an annual report that seeks to cover developments from Oct 2007 to Sep 2008. In the foreword to the report, Chief Justice Balakrishnan suggests a reason for the issuance of such reports: “Free flow of information not only enlightens our people, it also enables them to form an informed opinion on the functioning and efficacy of our Public Institutions." This, indisputably, is a laudable objective, and is especially welcome given the recent efforts of the Supreme Court to evade the application of the Right to Information Act to its operational details, which have added to the impression that the Supreme Court is not amenable to the ethic of transparency that it sets for other public institutions within the country.

The third of its kind, the Report provides considerable statistical information about the caseload of the Court (both historically and during the period under review), and details about its operational procedures. Other sections provide details (often quite perfunctorily) about the Arrears Committee, the Registry of the Supreme Court, the National Legal Services Authority, and the National Judicial Academy. The Report contains several valuable little nuggets of information – such as the fact that its budgetary outlay for 2007-08 was 56.74 crores, whereas the amount for the current year, 08-09, is 57.04 crores - which make perusing its contents a worthwhile task.

With its glossy, high definition pictures of judges and parts of the Supreme Court building, and the very thin descriptive styles of some sections (particularly the one dealing with its history), the Report at times has the tone of a corporate public-relations document. Still, given the lack of information about this important institution historically, this is a step to be welcomed.

The feature of the Report which seeks to go beyond the thin descriptive elements of the previous two versions is an essay by Professor G. Mohan Gopal, the current Director of the National Judicial Academy, titled ‘The Supreme Court in the morning of the 21st century.’ In the 24 page essay, at pages 83-107 of the Report, Prof. Gopal attempts to provide a brief overview “of the work of the Supreme court in the first eight years of the new millennium.” Going beyond the one year period of the Report, the essay covers significant decisions and trends in the substantive jurisprudence of the Supreme Court since 2000, while also providing a quantitative overview. A vast number of cases are covered in the essay, and this is an important resource for identifying significant Supreme Court decisions handed down during the 2000-08 period. Even as it identifies seven "social challenges" and the Supreme Court's response to these challenges in its jurisprudence, the essay does not seek to analyse any of the decisions in sufficient depth, but perhaps that is to be expected in what is essentially a survey rather than an analytical essay.

The chief value of such reports is in the statistical information about the working of the Court that they provide. They can be extremely useful resources for scholars and observers of the Court who are able use this data to reveal important implications for the functioning of the Court (as posts on this blog by Nick Robinson amply demonstrate). Perhaps the court should consider including more scholarly analyses of its functioning (the note by Prof. Gopal is a good first step in this respect) in future versions. That apart, the availability of such information should make scholars focus more pointedly on the quantitative aspects of the functioning of the Supreme Court, leading eventually to a more empirically grounded account of the Court's work.
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