Trial courts are the courts of first instance where most legal disputes are resolved. They handle a variety of cases, such as civil, family, probate, juvenile, and traffic cases. However, the largest portion of the workload of the trial courts is related to criminal cases, according to court statistics from different jurisdictions.
What are Criminal Cases?
Criminal cases are cases in which the government accuses a person or an entity of violating a criminal law, such as murder, robbery, assault, fraud, or drug trafficking. The government prosecutes the accused on behalf of the public and seeks to impose a penalty, such as imprisonment, fine, probation, or community service. The accused has the right to a fair trial, to be represented by a lawyer, to present evidence and witnesses, and to appeal the verdict or sentence.
How Many Criminal Cases are Filed in Trial Courts?
The number of criminal cases filed in trial courts varies depending on the jurisdiction, the type of crime, and the year. However, some general trends can be observed from court statistics reports. For example:
- In the United States, there were about 16.8 million criminal cases filed in state trial courts in 20181, accounting for 18% of the total caseload. Of these, 13.5 million were misdemeanors (less serious offenses punishable by up to one year in jail), and 3.3 million were felonies (more serious offenses punishable by more than one year in prison). The most common types of criminal cases were traffic offenses (6.4 million), property crimes (2.4 million), and drug offenses (1.9 million).
- In England and Wales, there were about 1.4 million criminal cases disposed of in magistrates’ courts (lower-level trial courts) and 97,000 in Crown Court (higher-level trial court) in 2019, accounting for 88% and 12% of the total caseload respectively. Of these, 83% were summary offenses (minor offenses dealt with by magistrates), and 17% were indictable offenses (serious offenses tried by a jury). The most common types of criminal cases were motoring offenses (41%), theft and handling stolen goods (15%), and violence against the person (14%).
- In India, there were about 2.8 crore (28 million) criminal cases pending in district and subordinate courts (trial courts) as of December 20203, accounting for 67% of the total pendency. Of these, 1.9 crore (19 million) were IPC cases (cases under the Indian Penal Code), and 0.9 crore (9 million) were SLL cases (cases under special and local laws). The most common types of criminal cases were crimes against property (28%), crimes against women (12%), and crimes affecting public order (11%).
Why are Criminal Cases the Largest Portion of the Workload of the Trial Courts?
There are several factors that contribute to the high volume and complexity of criminal cases in trial courts. Some of these are:
- The prevalence of crime in society and the enforcement of criminal laws by law enforcement agencies.
- The diversity and severity of criminal offenses and the corresponding penalties and procedures.
- The constitutional and statutory rights and protections afforded to the accused and the victims.
- The involvement of multiple parties and stakeholders in the criminal justice system, such as prosecutors, defense lawyers, judges, jurors, witnesses, experts, probation officers, correctional officers, and social workers.
- The challenges and delays in investigating, prosecuting, defending, adjudicating, sentencing, and appealing criminal cases.
How are Trial Courts Managing their Criminal Caseloads?
Trial courts face various challenges in managing their criminal caseloads efficiently and effectively. Some of these are:
- The lack of adequate resources and infrastructure to handle the increasing number and complexity of criminal cases.
- The backlog and congestion of criminal cases due to insufficient judicial officers and staff, lengthy trials and adjournments, limited court hours and facilities, and procedural bottlenecks.
- The impact of external factors such as pandemics, natural disasters, social unrests, political interference, and media influence on the functioning of trial courts.
- The quality and consistency of justice delivery and outcomes across different trial courts and regions.
To address these challenges, trial courts have adopted various measures and reforms to improve their performance and productivity. Some of these are:
- The use of technology and innovation to enhance case management systems, data collection and analysis, communication and coordination among stakeholders, evidence presentation and storage, court security and safety, and public access to information.
- The implementation of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms such as plea bargaining, mediation, diversion, and restorative justice to resolve criminal cases without going to trial or reduce their duration and intensity.
- The introduction of specialized courts and dockets such as drug courts, domestic violence courts, mental health courts, and veterans courts to address the underlying causes and needs of certain categories of offenders and victims.
- The adoption of best practices and standards to ensure the quality, timeliness, fairness, and transparency of criminal justice processes and outcomes.
Criminal cases are the largest portion of the workload of the trial courts in many jurisdictions. They pose significant challenges and opportunities for trial courts to deliver justice effectively and efficiently. Trial courts have taken various steps and initiatives to manage their criminal caseloads and improve their performance and productivity. However, more efforts and resources are needed to ensure that trial courts can meet the expectations and demands of the public and the society.