COVID-19 AND INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM
The global outbreak of the COVID-19 has encouraged countries to consider for a transformation of the justice system that is not merely technologically oriented, but also which set goals that the process should fulfill, and proposes strategic, technical, legislative courses of action to reach these goals and take virtual hearings more seriously. With a countrywide lockdown and the enforcement of social distancing, courts across the world have embraced technology, including mandatory electronic filing, restricting hearings to only critical cases and conducting them through video conferencing to ensure citizens continue to have access to justice and avoid a justice gridlock. This pandemic has highlighted gaps in the capacity and readiness of courts to move online during lockdown. It has also provided an opportunity for the judiciary to accelerate the process of digitization and create a framework for working online, as far as possible. For instance, UK has already conducted virtual hearings in some tax and traffic matters and has taken regular suits online. Singapore has introduced such hearings in several regular matters across all court levels in a staggered way. In contrast, Indian courts plan to conduct virtual hearings only for urgent matters at least during the period of lockdown.
“Legal Community can use lockdown period to hone up their skills and become technology friendly”
-Justice A.K Sikri
The e-filing system was introduced in the Delhi High Court in 2009. Initially in 2013 it was introduced in Company and Tax jurisdiction. In 2015 it was extended to Arbitration jurisdiction. The e-committee of the Supreme Court in 2014 had initiated a pilot exercise to test software for video conferences and accordingly expand the video conferencing solution to 500 courts and jails in the country in the first phase. In 2016, there were 704 locations in the country where installations of video conferencing equipment were completed. As per the recent data released by the government, there are 488 court complexes and 342 jails in the country where video conferencing is available. With the passage of time, the technology has been evolving and it has come to the persistent need to set up better audio-visual facilities in jails, courts, Forensic Science Laboratories, etc. to ensure that justice is dispensed in a timely and faster manner.
The Corona virus pandemic is a wake up call for the humanity and all sector of the society including Indian Courts and Indian Judiciary wherein an emphasis has been placed as a need for an increased use of technology in the justice system. During this calamity, Online platform provide access to justice which is fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy envisaged by the Constitution of India. The poor and Litigants can be benefited from the remote and more holistic participation by avoiding the cost of making the long treks to District Courts, High Courts and Supreme Court. Besides it will Increase the predictability and transparency in costs, timelines and outcomes and lead to quick and effective disposal of urgent matters/ adjournments and other applications seeking court directions. The importance of allowing technology within the judicial process is already recognized in studies conducted by Indian legal analysts. For instance, DAKSH’s white paper series on a next-generational justice platform moots with the idea of re-calibrating the Indian judicial system through a natively digital platform.
On April 6, The Honourable Supreme Court, invoking its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution, directed that District courts in each states shall adopt the mode of video-conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court and they shall also maintain a helpline to ensure that any complaint in regard to the quality or audibility of feed shall communicated during the proceedings immediately. They also emphasized on taking urgent hearing only. For example, both The Patna High Court and The Gauhati High Court have issued notifications on how to list cases in the interim. While it emphasizes on hearing only ‘urgent matters’, The Gauhati High Court makes no reference to citizenship-related writ petitions. In the Madras High Court, the facility for e-filing of cases, which was initially only for bail applications, was launched on April 22, 2020. Filing of urgent cases through e-mail is also permitted now. The Information Technology Committee of the Delhi High Court has organized a programme to launch the Virtual Court system for the traffic challans captured through CCTV cameras.
However, in addition to these measures, there is also a need to improve the related processes like e-filing, evidence management, case and document management, and improvement of listing practices which are all critical processes, interlinked and essential for the success of a virtual court in Indian Judiciary.
Authored by Sakshi Verma, An Associate at Vidhiśāstras- Advocates & Solicitors.