Context:During the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of coronavirus, it has become clear that many activities can simply be done online. Technology can also be utilised for better functioning in the field of judiciary.
Existing hurdles in Judiciary:
- Pendency of cases in various courts
- As of August 2019, there are over 3.5 crore cases pending across the Supreme Court, the High Courts, and the subordinate courts.
- As a result of pendency, the number of under-trials in prison is more than double that of convicts.
- The Economic Survey of 2019-2020 has even dedicated a separate chapter to the pendency of tax cases and revenue cases.
- Underutilisation of existing infrastructure:
- There are tribunals such as the Income Tax Tribunal that function only half-day most of the time.
- In addition to that most courts are also closed for Christmas and summer vacations.
- Lack of accountability mechanism for assessing the Efficiency and Performance of judges.
- Vacancy of judges across courts in India has affected the functioning of the judiciary, particularly in relation to the disposal of cases.
- High legal costs and complicated legal procedures:
- Thousands of Indians cannot afford to go to court as legal costs are high and legal procedures are complicated.
- Time required for settlement of cases often increases due to
- Lawyers on both sides need to be physically present in court.
- Cases are frequently adjourned due to various reasons.
What can be the way of functioning of a virtual judiciary in this scenario?
- Utilising the email service:
- People can submit all the papers associated via mail. The judge can decide the case based on all the available information.
- Wherever the judge requires clarifications, he or she can seek the same through email.
- Draft order and final order:
- The judge, after considering all the material available, can pass a draft order and send it to both sides for any comments which they may want to provide.
- Thereafter, the judge can, after considering these comments can pass the final order.
Kerala High Court as a Role model
The Kerala High Court created history by conducting proceedings through video conferencing but also live streamed the proceedings during the lockdown.
- The judges conducted the hearing from their homes.
- Nearly 30 matters of urgent importance were taken up for hearing, including bail applications and writ petitions, and were disposed of.
- The advocates and law officers too participated in the proceedings from their respective offices.
Advantages of virtual courts:
- Increasing efficiency of courts
- The virtual judiciary will result in substantial savings in costs and will also lead to speedy disposal of cases.
- The productivity of lawyers will increase substantially as visits to courts and long waiting hours will be more an exception than a rule.
- If this practice is extended to other civil cases, efficiency will drastically increase in judicial functioning.
- Better utilisation of existing infrastructure:
- The jurisdiction of a court is defined by geography and it makes no sense in matters such as taxation and company law.
- The transformation to remote, non-personal electronic court hearings will change this. All judges can be empowered to handle any case, wherever it originates.
- This will result in multiple advantages such as
- Better utilisation of manpower and infrastructure by equitably distributing the work.
- Malpractices in the judiciary will be limited as there will no longer be familiarity between lawyers and judges in a city.
- Importance of virtual courts in the current pandemic:
- Courts are open even during a national lockdown so that access to justice is not denied to anyone.
- The need of maintaining physical distancing due to COVID-19 is fulfilled.
Norms for holding court proceedings via video conference
- A three-judge Bench headed by the CJI recently laid down broad norms for courts using video-conferencing.
- The guidelines would be formulated and sent to the respective courts and lawyers by National Informatics Centre (NIC).
- NIC is an attached office under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.
- District courts are to follow the videoconferencing rules as formulated by their respective high courts.
- Guidelines state that all courts should maintain helpline services to resolve the grievances of all those appearing through videoconferencing during the hearing or immediately after the hearing.
- As the use of technology is stepped up, courts should consider other steps that will speed up the judicial process and reduce courtroom crowding.
- The other forms of justice delivery like mediation, arbitration, counselling in family court matters, quick settlement of disputed insurance claims can be taken up online.
- To leverage the technology, the skilled human resource needs to be buckled up.
- Suggestions for lower courts:
- Here evidence could be recorded by virtual means after the consent of parties involved.
- Suggestions for higher courts:
- Here a system based on advance submission of written briefs and allocation of time slots for oral arguments can be created.
- It may even lead to more concise judgments.
- Despite the possibility of technical and connectivity issues affecting the process, there is a need to recognise that virtual hearings are no different from open court conversations, provided access is not limited.