Technology Driven Courts – A Paradigm Shift

BW Legal | 1st October, 2021

Judicial system in India is vast & is procedurally driven, compelling a common man to continue to visit courts physically to keep a tab on his/her cases. Statistics depict, pendency of thousands of cases across the hierarchy of the courts.

Historically, the computerization of judicial procedures and records commenced in the year 1990. To optimise the accessibility of courts, the concept of eCourts was envisioned in the year 2005, by National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). The objective was to provide efficient and time bound citizen centric services, automated processes providing transparency and accessibility of information, enhancing judicial productivity and to make the delivery of justice affordable, accessible, cost-effective, predictable, reliable and transparent.

Phase wise implementation was embarked upon in 2013, and facilities like eCourts National portal providing Case Status, online Cause lists, uploading orders/judgments were made available. Digitisation of court records slowly and steadily paved way, at least in various High courts of the country, enabling judges to access court records, electronically, during physical hearings. While Supreme court was deliberating on streaming important cases ‘Live’ when Covid Pandemic struck the world. The pandemic accelerated the manifestation of fully equipped virtual courts or e-courts, which a normal litigant would never have imagined.

With active support of the government, the think tank within the judicial system, transformed almost all courts and tribunals into a virtual court rooms. Though the wheels of dispensation of actual justice may turn slowly, but the accessibility to judicial processes, became convenient, accessible, cost effective. The court staff & judges underwent critical training, so as to match with the new shifts occurring in hearing of the cases daily through virtual mode. Technological platforms like zoom, Cisco WebEx, Vidyo are playing an notable and effective part to make the virtual courts module an operational success. Accomplishments are varied and phenomenal, covering, proliferation of eCourts pan India, attendance of lawyers irrespective of geographical location of the courts from the convivence of their workplace, constituents of any case can access records at their fingertips, judges hold courts effectively with e staff management. This transformation is rapid, profound, and far reaching and in all probability shall result in an everlasting alteration of the topography of justice.

The light of these laudable achievements is brilliant, but its radiance cannot overshadow the shortcomings & obstacles attached with it.

It maybe urged that virtual courts will confer access to a larger number of people and justice shall be imparted as enshrined under Article 39A of the Constitution. This argument is on the premise that the reach of internet in general, far & wide. But this argument will hold water if each and every person involved is given the means to access the virtual proceedings., Statistics reveal that till the year 2017, nearly 72% of population have no access to internet, further internet connections are unevenly distributed. TRAI data shows that there is high rate of subscription in urban area. A concerted effort is to be made to make the entire system a sustainable solution. These efforts are to be backed by a premediated policy which erases the disparity in access and distribution of internet in rural and urban areas which may prove to be critical impediment in dispensation of justice. The accessibility/availability of electronic devices, lack of internet connectivity, in ability of operating a computer system by citizens in remote areas, continues to be formidable challenge. The inadequacies of a virtual court are writ large. Intermittent interruption of connectivity at either the court’s end or the litigants’ end and or lawyers end disrupts the smooth functioning of the virtual court. The roadmap penciled up for digital justice delivery in the country should be well marked and should attempt to properly onboard all Indian courts and tribunals even in remotest parts of the country. All citizens should have equal access, shortage of IT infrastructure is to be dealt with across country, digital literacy of all social groups is necessary for an inclusive and fair treatment. A standardised, secure procedure and set up is to be established involving all incumbents of a virtual court. This may prove to be herculean and a complex task, but nonetheless the protagonist of this field have to accomplish it.

An ongoing debate which is also ensuing is the feasibility of criminal law practice in virtual ambience. examination and cross examination of the witness may not be efficient and shall hinder the outcome of a criminal matter.

With the fear of the pandemic diminishing, the courts have now evolved a hybrid system of hearing where lawyers or litigants can visit the court physically while having the option to connect virtually. This is a welcome reasonable reaction while the difficulties surrounding the eCourt is being tackled and access is being managed to be provided to the citizenry even in the remotest area of the country.