Record-breaking backlog: Supreme Court grapples with unprecedented number of pending cases

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In an alarming development, the Supreme Court is currently facing the highest level of pending cases since the inception of the country in 1947. As of June 30, a staggering 54,965 cases remain unresolved, as reported in a recent fortnightly disposal report.

The ongoing summer vacations contributed to the mounting backlog, with the majority of SC judges abstaining from hearing cases during this period. Consequently, it is anticipated that the number of pending cases will continue to rise.

Upon assuming office on February 2, 2022, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial inherited 53,964 pending cases. During the tenure of his predecessor, CJP Gulzar Ahmed, over 10,000 cases were added to the backlog.

Despite two vacant positions of SC judges for an extended period, the number of pending cases had slightly decreased by 2,000 within a year. In a statement issued on February 25, the SC announced a reduction from 54,735 to 52,450 pending cases over the course of one year.

On September 12, 2022, CJP Bandial expressed optimism that concerted efforts by his fellow judges would bring down the number of pending cases to approximately 45,000 within the next six months. Unlike his predecessor, CJP Bandial had prioritized bench formation discipline.

However, the situation took a turn when the SC, under CJP Bandial’s leadership, invoked suo motu jurisdiction over the delay in elections for two provincial assemblies earlier this year.

According to the recent fortnightly report, the total number of pending cases has surged to 54,965 as of June 30, with over 2,000 cases added since February.

Currently, 15 judges are active in the SC, while two positions have remained vacant for the past eight to nine months. Justice Musarrat Hilali is expected to take oath as an SC judge in the coming days.

Experts suggested that judicial politics may also be impacting the timely adjudication of cases. The SC appears to be divided into two factions, with seven judges in one camp and eight in the other. Certain judges exhibit reluctance to sit on the same bench with specific colleagues.

In February, Justice Isa highlighted the establishment of a case management committee to address the overwhelming number of accumulated cases. However, the approval of the committee’s report by the Chief Justice, awaited since July 22, 2022, has caused delays. Justice Isa has not been part of any bench for over two months.

Last year, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah expressed concern over delays in case disposal, recognizing them as the most significant challenge facing the criminal justice system. The devastating impact of pending cases on families and litigants cannot be overlooked.