The unrealised potential of judicial data
On November 27, the Supreme Court granted interim bail to Arnab Goswami. While doing so, Justice D Y Chandrachud lamented the high pendency in Indian courts and observed that National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) statistics are a valuable resource “to monitor the pendency and disposal of cases”.
The court directed the Chief Justices of every high court to utilise ICT tools and ensure access to justice. The scope of judicial data is much greater — it can be used to design more efficient caseload management systems, inform resource allocation in courts and improve judicial efficiency. Unfortunately, this may not be as easy as it seems.
NJDG is a subset of the eCourts project, a scheme launched in 2007 by the Ministry of Law and Justice. The project aims to integrate technology with the judicial system. However, a recent study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP) found that eCourts data lacks in several aspects, which may make the recent Supreme Court directions difficult to achieve.
This is not a new issue, and the Law Commission of India has also faced challenges while depending on judicial data to calculate the caseload across various courts.
In particular, the problems in the data arise due to three reasons: Inconsistencies in what is reported, missing data and restricted access.
As an example, the NJDG records only 24 case types. This is the form in which the final data is presented to judges, litigants and researchers. However, district courts often record up to 100 case types. This means that data has to be retrofitted into the 24 types, which leads to inconsistencies. This is exacerbated by the fact that courts often don’t tag cases under the law in which they are filed.
They only mention procedural laws like the Evidence Act and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which renders the information unusable. For example, while abetting suicide is governed by the Indian Penal Code, the CrPC governs the procedure for prosecution. However, the CrPC governs the procedure for all criminal disputes (theft, assault, etc.) and when a case is only tagged under the CrPC (as it often is), it is impossible to identify what is the nature/subject of the dispute. This prevents high courts from accurately assessing the type of cases that subordinate courts hear and how long it takes to dispose of them.
Perhaps, more importantly, there is also missing data in the fields that are reported. The NIPFP study found that final orders were missing for more than 70 per cent cases. Thus, litigants may not be able to access the decision in their case — a hallmark of any sound judicial system. The data also lacks information across other data fields, such as when and how many times the court heard a case.
If this were the case, it could be used to understand how long cases take to be listed before a court after filing. One could also analyse which cases are prioritised during the listing process by measuring the time between filing and hearing. Lately, the judiciary has faced questions of how to efficiently list cases and ensure that cases which need to be heard urgently are not delayed. Knowing how cases are currently prioritised can be crucial in addressing these concerns.
Besides content, ease of access also restricts how the data is used. Even if the data were standardised and made error-free, the current design of the system limits its usability. Information can only be procured for individual cases because the system is designed to provide information to litigants and advocates. If high courts are to use ICT tools and ensure access to justice, they will require bulk data. Apart from the judiciary, researchers and civil society organisations can also benefit from such access.
They can give insights regarding the performances of judges and assessing which laws lead to more disputes. An empirical analysis could help corroborate their findings. Countries such as the United States and the UK are not averse to sharing bulk data and even have dedicated bodies tasked with the research and improvement of the judiciary.
In a stakeholder discussion organised by NIPFP, Justice Rajiv Shakdher, the chairperson of the Delhi High Court’s eCommittee, also talked about potential benefits of the eCourts project. He commented on the creation of a separate body to oversee the management of data, from entry to publication. This is similar to the solution adopted by other countries.
The eCourts project is a step in the right direction. Its unused potential can be unlocked through policy and design interventions that can highlight reforms in the judicial system. The errors and lack of standardisation can be reduced by designing interfaces such that most details are automated rather than being typed by individual operators. Similarly, a one-size-fits-all solution may not work for all courts.
Instead, courts should be given instructions on a common reporting vocabulary and how these connect to the parameters which are to be reported. There should be a balance between space for local requirements and comparison across courts. This should be supported by bulk and open access to the data, which is regularly audited both by manual auditors as well as automatic processes. A functioning data system would allow the Supreme Court to better monitor the pendency and disposal of cases as well as suggest any improvements in the judicial system.
The authors are researchers at National Institute of Public Finance and Policy. Karan Gulati was previously at the office of Justice D Y Chandrachud. However, he was not part of any discussion regarding the quality of data.