Digitisation will ensure speedy, efficient delivery of justice

Richard Eric Susskind writes in his book, The Future of Law, that in the coming years, lawyers and litigants will communicate via email. In Courts Online and the Future of Justice, he asserted that technology will revolutionize the field of law and transform the court system.

The Indian judiciary is increasingly beginning to use technology and the change has been reflected in the legal profession in general as well. Some important developments occurred before the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, with the digitization of judicial records and the creation of electronic courts. Thus, it is necessary to discuss the use of digital technology to make better use of its potential, particularly with regard to the digitization of court records, electronic filing of cases and virtual hearings, and live broadcasting of court proceedings.

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In India, e-governance in the field of administration of justice began in the late 1990s, but accelerated after the enactment of the Information and Technology Act 2000. With the beginning of the twenty-first century, the focus has been on the digitization of court records and the establishment of e-courts across the country. In 2006, e-courts were launched as part of the National Electronic Governance Plan (NEGP).

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In this regard, the Allahabad High Court is an example to guide. When he was Chief Justice of Allahabad HC, Judge D.Y. Chandrachod envisioned and embarked on the project to digitize approximately one crore case files in one year. This was necessary as not only was there not a lot of space required to store a lot of files, but it also became difficult to keep old documents manually. Another purpose was to ensure that these files could be tracked electronically when appropriate. The consequences of losing court records are dire. In Uttar Pradesh v. Abhay Raj Singh, the Supreme Court held that if court records are lost and rebuilding cannot be done, the courts are obligated to overturn the conviction. Thus, convicts can be released for lack of court records. This is not a rare event and in many older cases, lost criminal records were found leading to the acquittal of the accused.

The time taken to summon records from the lower courts to the courts of appeal is one of the major factors causing delays in cases. With digitization, it would take much less time for lower courts to send records on demand. It was also noted that cases were adjourned simply because returns made several years ago were not brought back with the registry or were not traceable. Once the documents are digitized and submitted electronically by the advisors, at least the cases will not be deferred by the courts on that account.

Once an attorney or litigant has filed a case digitally, he or she can check the filing status, status of applications and affidavits, next hearing date, court orders etc. by simply clicking on an app. Lawyers benefit because they or their employees are no longer required to visit the reporting or other sections of the court to find out the status of their cases. The Electronic Commission of the Supreme Court has sought to implement this by issuing directives to ensure that electronic submission of cases/petitions by state governments in all matters is mandatory as of January 1, 2022.

Before the pandemic, virtual hearings were only limitedly used; For example, in criminal cases where the accused could not be physically brought before the court or during the extension of the accused’s pretrial detention. However, not nearly every condition can be eliminated. Cases related to marriage, domestic violence, bounced check and auto accident compensation cases referred to mediation centers and lok adalats can be included in the list of cases adjudicated through virtual hearing.

Matrimonial case hearing through video conference was approved by the Supreme Court in Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam (2017), however, the trend was short-lived and a coordinating council of the High Court in Santhini Vijaya Venkatesh (2018) He referred the matter for reconsideration in front of a larger seat. Recently, the Supreme Court in the case of Anjali Brahmawar Chauhan v Naveen Chauhan allowed the family court, Gautam Buddha Nagar, to conduct a trial in a marital case through videoconference.

In 2018, the Supreme Court allowed the live broadcasting of cases of constitutional and national importance on the basis of the judgment of Swabnil Tripathi. The live broadcast of court proceedings is a step towards ensuring transparency and openness.

While many reservations have been expressed against it, in July 2021 the Gujarat court became the first in the country to broadcast its proceedings live. Legal and technical hurdles were eliminated in the live broadcasting process under the leadership of Judge Vikram Nath, then Chief Justice of Gujarat HC. His example was followed by other healthcare centers like Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Patna.

Internet connectivity issues and the need for a well-stocked space where attorneys can conduct their cases are some of the major issues that require attention. Political will and support for judges and lawyers are also essential. Judges, court officials, and lawyers are not well versed in digital technology and its benefits. The need of the hour is for them to be aware of these matters and receive proper training. Virtual hearings cannot substitute for actual court hearings in all cases. However, in appropriate cases and certain classes of cases as determined by the administration of the court in consultation with members of the bar, a virtual hearing shall be mandatory.

This column first appeared in print on May 28, 2022 under the headline “Justice, One Click.” The writer is additional government attorney, Allahabad High Court

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