It’s 12%

I had often wondered what per cent of admission matters get accepted as regular hearing matters by the Supreme Court. This seems especially important to keep track of given the amount of time the Court spends hearing admission matters publicly. Well, the answer it turns out is about 12% (in 2005 it was 11.8%; in 2006 it was 12.4%, and in 2007 it was 12.1% according to statistics from the Supreme Court comparing the number of admission matters disposed of and regular hearing matters instituted – you can get this raw data upon request from the Court – I did the math to get the per cent, hopefully correctly).

In the U.S. about 1% of cases filed before the Supreme Court are actually heard by the Court. In countries like Italy, France, and Austria with Constitutional Courts – where almost all matters for their highest Courts are referred by the legislature or lower courts and not individuals – this number jumps to closer to 100%. The Brazilian Supreme Federal Court also decides a high proportion of the cases filed before it although individuals are allowed to appeal to it (and do quite often). You can see how each of these screening methods effects the functioning of a court. In the U.S. appeal is not that difficult, but the Court accepts few of these appeals for regular hearing making its caseload quite manageable. In the case of the Constitutional Courts most appeals are only from the legislature or lower courts meaning the appeal load is low and they can accept most of it manageably. In Brazil the Court is overwhelmed by appeals (most of which it decides, even if with just a sentence) and must rely more heavily on its staff to process these appeals. In India, the Court has added more judges and benches to process its relatively high appeal and judgment load. Unsurprisingly, how courts deal with admission matters fundamentally affect their structure and functioning.

So, what are we to make of this 12% number? We could have a larger discussion about whether it is too high or too low (a longer argument that would have to be outside this post). We could use it to assess the quality of lawyers – if you are a Supreme Court advocate what per cent of your cases are taken for regular hearing? (If it is below 12% you might have some explaining to do.) We could also break it down further. For example, in 2007 21% of three-justice bench admission matters and 55% of five-justice bench admission matters were accepted for regular hearing (the highest of any categories – probably because many are referred from other benches). Two of the next highest in 2007 were Direct Tax (20%) and Arbitration (19%) matters. Was this because more valid cases were brought in these categories? Were the lawyers in these matters better able to get them placed for regular hearing? Are justices biased towards these cases? Some of the lower acceptance rates for regular hearing came in categories with the highest profile. For example, only 5% of contempt admission matters in 2007 went to regular hearing. Similarly, only 7% of PIL admission matters continued on for regular hearing (this only counts the PIL matters that were placed on the admission hearing calendar – most PIL letter petitions don’t even make it this far). What explains these divergences? Are there more spurious cases brought in these categories? Are they more likely to be decided by justices during the admission hearing so that they are rejected at this stage instead of during regular hearing? Of course, none of this tells us how much time is spent arguing during the admission hearing in each category of cases, or whether oral admission arguments actually helped inform justices better than pure written arguments would have.

The Indian Supreme Court is increasingly keeping better and better statistics about its caseload (many of the High Courts have followed suit or arguably taken the lead). Statistics can often be misleading and their use in argument counter-productive. However, statistics can also give us more concrete tools to describe the Court’s functioning and where we would like it to head. Hopefully, scholars will increasingly dive into the statistical data about the Court to firm up their arguments and let the numbers lead them to new insights about the judiciary.

Written by
Nick Robinson
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1 comment
  • While I agree that the Court needs to dramatically reduce the number of admissions, I believe it is misleading to compare it to the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court is perched on top of a three-tiered system of federal courts in which district courts and courts of appeal have primary jurisdiction in constitutional cases. In India, only High Courts have such jurisdiction, although the Constitution makes provision for district courts to be vested with that power as well. Moreover, unlike the U.S. Supreme Court, there are no state supreme courts in India that are the final word on many legal issues that do not come to the US Supreme Court.