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Measuring court output in the pandemic: evidence from India's largest commercial tribunal

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by Anjali Sharma and Bhargavi Zaveri.

Introduction

A critical element of organisational planning is the ability to anticipate and manage risks. Many organisations worry about the risk of disruptions to their operations. They spend time and resources to anticipate such events, and put in place mechanisms to mitigate their impact. This is known as business continuity planning (BCP). It can range from keeping standby suppliers for raw materials, finding alternate delivery channels to reach customers, building redundancies along networks and so on. The objective of BCP is to ensure that business operations do not get disrupted.

Courts are an important part of the institutional eco-system of business. In times of general distress, like the one posed by the pandemic, courts are an essential service. As the state uses all the powers at its disposal to deal with the pandemic, judicial checks and balances are likely to be most needed. As businesses try to minimise their losses, disputes between economic actors are likely to increase. The role of courts to adjudicate disputes becomes more important in these times. An important question in this context is: are key institutions such as courts able to ensure business continuity?

In this article, we analyse this question in the context of the functioning of one of India’s largest commercial tribunals, the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT), in the post-Covid world. The NCLT’s jurisdiction extends to matters under the Companies Act, 2013 (CA2013), the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016 (IBC), and the Limited Liability and Partnership Act, 2008 (LLP Act). It hears a wide range of matters such as disputes between shareholders, enforcement actions against companies and their management, schemes of corporate restructuring, and insolvency proceedings. It would not be unfair to say that the NCLT’s functioning likely affects the functioning of firms in the country.

India implemented one of the most stringent lockdowns in response to the pandemic (Source: Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker, Blavatnik School of Government). A near complete closure of all activities that were deemed non-essential commenced on 25th March and lasted till nearly the end of May. From June onwards, a phase-wise unlocking process commenced. In order to study the impact of the lockdown on the functioning of the NCLT, we constructed a novel data-set, drawing upon the daily cause-lists published by the NCLT.

Data and methodology
Data

We use a unique data-set derived from the daily cause-lists published by the NCLT. A causelist is a list of cases that are scheduled to be heard in a courtroom. While causelists suffer from lack from standardisation, both in the template and in the manner in which data fields are populated, they are a rich source of information about court functioning. Table 1 provides the list of the fields that we used in our analysis. Some of these are original, that is verbatim from the causelist, while others are derived by cleaning up and organising the original information available.



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    Table 1: Causelist data

    Field name Description

    Date Causelist date
    Bench/Court Bench name and court room number
    CP/CA Unique case identifier
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