Friday, February 19, 2016

An Empirical Study of the Supreme Court

(Guest Post by Alok Prasanna)

The Supreme Court of India today is a very different creature from what it was when it was set up in 1950. From being envisaged initially as an apex constitutional court, it in danger of becoming a regular court of appeals with some constitutional functions. The data collected by Nick Robinson and put out in this article shows just how much as Special Leave Petitions have come to dominate the Supreme Court’s caseload, seemingly at the expense of its writ jurisdiction and constitutional functions. In addition, the data from the Supreme Court itself as discussed by Robinson also seemed to show the regional disparity in the access to the Supreme Court as well. Both these aspects have been examined in some detail in the Consultation Paper Vidhi issued last year.

To follow up on this and to study the possible causes and solutions to the problems affecting the Supreme Court’s efficiency and efficacy, we took a look at the caseload numbers for 2014 in the Report “Towards an Efficient and Effective Supreme Court” published this week. Using code developed by Nigel Babu for us, Vidhi looked at the Appeals, SLPs, Writ Petitions, Transfer Petitions, and review petitions (both in civil and criminal cases) filed in the Supreme Court in 2014 to understand what the Supreme Court’s workload in a given year looks like. The information available in the “Case Status” section of the Supreme Court’s website has been collected through software in the second half of 2015 to create this dataset.

Some of the results were quite expected:
  1. SLPs form more than 80% of the cases filed in 2014.
  2. The presence of a senior advocate nearly doubles the chances of notice being issued in an SLP (~60% v 33%).
  3. 95% of all review petitions get dismissed in limine.
  4. The bulk of transfer petitions involve transfer of cases under the Code of Civil Procedure from one Court to another. 

Some were expected but not at the scale the data showed:
  1. 96% of all appeals filed challenging orders of the AFT were filed by the Central Government.
  2. 96% of all appeals filed by the Government against orders of the AFT were dismissed in limine.

Some were unexpected and somewhat counter-intuitive:
  1. The Supreme Court issues notice in nearly 43% of the SLPs it hears.
  2. Central Government is responsible only for 7% of the fresh cases filed in the Supreme Court.

This is of course data from one year alone but we hope to expand upon the data set for subsequent and previous years as well where possible. We have put up the raw data that we scraped on our website and anyone who is interested in drawing further insights from it is most welcome. The status of the cases in our dataset, whether pending or not, would’ve changed since we collected the data and we’ll try to update it when possible.

While our initial Consultation Paper was looking at creating a National Court of Appeals as a possible solution to the problems of an overburdened Supreme Court, given the problems of creating a new judicial body, starting it up with a vast backlog and having the constitutional amendment withstand judicial scrutiny under the basic structure test, we felt that it would not be a feasible response. Rather, we have suggested some measures which can be undertaken by the Supreme Court itself, or administrative steps that can be taken by the Central Government to reduce the litigation burden of the Supreme Court.

(Alok Prasanna is a Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy)
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