Commentators have often noted that the High Courts, District Courts, and other subordinate courts are rarely systematically studied in India. In such a large country, it's difficult to easily make many statements about what is going on in these lower courts. One way to attempt to (relatively easily) study these courts is to look at the statistical data available about them. The Supreme Court issues quarterly reports about the pendency, institution, and disposal numbers in these courts (which is forwarded to them from the High Courts). The data is fairly basic, but it does separate out civil and criminal cases from each other.
Chief Justice Balakrishnan commented yesterday at a national consultation for reducing pendency and delays that:
“the litigation rates in the various States do not bear a consistent correlation with their respective populations. This means that in some States, a large proportion of the population has been approaching the courts as compared to other States. What is especially worrying is the immense disparity between the number of civil and criminal cases instituted in backward and insurgency-hit areas.
A perusal of the pendency figures indicates that while there are more civil cases filed in developed areas, the reliance on the civil justice system is shockingly low in Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Jammu and Kashmir as well as the northeastern States. This disturbing trend could have two explanations — one, that the number of courts is grossly inadequate, and secondly, ordinary citizens are consciously not bringing their civil disputes before the judicial system. If the second of these explanations holds good, then it indeed calls for targeted interventions.”
I agree with the Chief Justice that there are striking differences between civil/criminal pendency figures across states in the country and the rates that the judiciary is being accessed by the population. I also think he is generally right that filing rates and low civil/criminal filing ratios are correlated to backward and insurgency areas, but there are outliers that deserve further investigation. Indeed, the picture is a lot more murky when one looks at the statistics, which indicates either the statistics are inaccurate or we need to have more detailed studies and theorizing about this issue.
Let's take up the question of filing rates to population first. In India on average in 2008 for every 616 people one case is filed in a High Court. The five best state ratios in 2008 (if you think more litigation is a good thing) are Himachal Pradesh (239); Madras (258); Kerala (388); Orissa (431); and Jammu and Kashmir (471); the five worst are Assam (1300); Chattisgarh (1198); Andhra Pradesh (1127); Jharkhand (1032); and Calcutta (908). Orissa and Jammu and Kashmir being in the top five might be a surprise and Calcutta and AP in the bottom five as well, but more or less the statistics seem to show some correlation between development and filing rates at the High Court level.
If we look at the district and subordinate courts amongst the best are Delhi (27); Kerala (30); Himachal Pradesh (39); Madras (40); and Gujarat (41). Amongst the worst are Bihar (245); Jharkhand (220); Orissa (134); AP (114); and Chattisgarh (94). Again, the correlation seems to hold up and we might assume that if we average out a few years the correlation might even get stronger and potential anomolies (Orissa being in the best for High courts and worse for subordinate courts) might even out. Generally, the states with poor filing rates also have poor judge to population and judge to filing ratios, so one could argue there is a supply side deficit that's effecting the demand. These results are somewhat interesting, but not particularly surprising, although if certain anomolies (like Orissa) remained that could call for further study.
Now let's turn to civil and criminal ratios. Nationally the civil/criminal ratio in H. Ct.'s is about 66%/34% in 2008. The CJI suggests that if the civil rate goes too low that might be an indicator of broader trouble with that court and citizens are deciding not to turn to it for civil redressal. For example, in Bihar the civil/criminal ratio is 32/68 for the High Court. Meaning 32% of the cases filed were civil, while 68% were criminal (this is a whopping 34% off the national average). Bihar has the worst ratio that year (again, if you think that a low civil filing rate compared to criminal is a bad thing). Following Bihar were Jharkhand (36/64) Punjab and Haryana (55/45), Gujarat (57/42) and UP (59/41). The "best" civil/criminal ratios were in Jammu and Kashmir (92/8), Himachal (86/14), Karnataka (85/15), AP (81/19), and Bombay (81/19).
In the subordinate courts amongst the worst were West Bengal (11/89), Jharkhand (14/86), Bihar (15/85), Chattisgarh (16/84), and Uttarkhand (16/84). Amongst the best were TN (51/49), AP (64/54), Karnataka (34/66), Himachal (33/67), and Delhi (25/75). Here the surprises would be finding Jammu and Kashmir as having the best ratio on the High Court side, and finding Punjab and Haryana and Gujarat amongst the worse ratios. In the subordinate and district courts having West Bengal have the worst ratio comes as a bit of a surprise, along with Uttarkhand being towards the bottom.
You will notice that there seems to be some correlation between having a high filing rate for ones population and a good civil/criminal ratio. AP is the outlier here having a poor filing rate, but a very healthy civil/criminal ratio.
Further, 3 out of 5 of the top and bottom scorers in filing rate in the High Court also scored in the top or bottom 5 in the subordinate courts. For the civil/criminal ratio the correlation was only 2 out of 5 of each the bottom and top bracket. Indeed, the civil/criminal ratio seems to be more murky overall, often following development indicators, but not as tightly as the filing rate. For example, Delhi and Chattisgarh High Court have about the same civil/criminal ratio (67/33), but per capita income in Delhi is about 4 times as much. Something else seems to be at work here - i.e. development is an ok indicator of a court's civil/criminal ratio, but there seems to be some other factor (or several other factors) as well.
Even if we accept development as the primary driver of the civil/criminal ratio it's not perfectly clear what about development drives the ratio. For example, is it that as the CJI suggests in under-developed states litigants aren't as likely to bring their civil suits to court (presumably because either they don't think the court can efficiently or fairly deal with them, or they can't afford the court)? Is it that there just aren't as many civil suits because there isn't much economic development? Is it that there is higher crime or more criminalization of activity by the state? Is it that development is correlated to a lack of judges and so it's a supply side issue? I would be possible to get a satisfactory answer with some more crunching and hopefully the proposed National Arrears Grid will be able to shed more light on these sorts of questions.