Dr. Justice D. Y. Chandrachud addressed a webinar organized by the NALSAR University of Law in which he explained in detail the concept of “virtual courts“. He highlighted the problems facing the implementation of the concept and the possible solutions. Snehal Kanzarkar, a law student, has prepared a summary of the views expressed by the ld. Judge in the webinar
Lecture on The Future of Virtual Courts and Access to Justice in India by Hon’ble Dr. Justice Chandrachud (Nyaya Forum for Courtroom Lawyering, May 24, 2020)
Hon’ble Dr. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud is the Chairman of the E-committee, Supreme Court of India. The E-committee has been responsible for various changes brought for the digitization of the judiciary and integration of technology with the judicial function for efficiency, transparency and accountability. Justice Chandrachud was the speaker in a webinar organized by Nyaya Forum for Courtroom Lawyering (NALSAR Hyderabad), titled ‘Future of Virtual Courts and Access to Justice In India’ on May 24th 2020. His Lordship divided his lecture in three parts:
A. Immediate past: His lordship initially elaborated upon the importance of technology and its role in judicial proceedings in India and then elaborated upon the judicial proceedings in light of COVID-19 i.e. steps taken to limit the spread of the disease in court rooms (social distancing, sanitization of the court premises, temperature sensors at the entrances, closing of the premises, e-filing). His Lordship elaborated upon steps taken to ensure access to justice in lockdown i.e. immediately following the lockdown the hearing of the cases started taking place on video-conferencing and the e-filing system. During the lockdown 3049 civil cases and 90,700 criminal cases were instituted and the courts disposed off, 832 civil cases and 40, 095 criminal cases.
B. E-courts: His Lordship gave an insight into the e-courts project. The e-committee of the Hon’ble Supreme Court has been working on various aspects of integration of technology into the Indian Judicial system. The aspects discussed in the lecture are as follows:
- Long term behind the scenes work has been done for installing the requisite infrastructure, training of the employees through webinars and modules, testing of the software and suggestions are being invited from the bar.
- To ensure access to justice during the lockdown, the hearings are being done through virtual platforms and the orders are passed under Article 142.
- Under the e-filing system, the filing of case can be done 24/7, the documents filed are scrutinized online, defects are indicated online, documents filing is done online and fee payment is done online. The E-pay module is developed with SBI and other banks.
- A committee of 5 judges (under the e-committee) is working on a model for video-conferencing rules and developing the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for digitization ,SOP for e-filing across country, rules for live streaming of cases, SOP for inter-operability of the criminal law system and SOP for inter linking of the law libraries across the nation.
- The phases of e-court project: First phase was from February 2007 to March 2015 and a capital infusion of Rs. 935 crores was done. During the first phase 14,249 court-room sites were prepared, 13606 Local Area Network (LAN) were installed, 13436 hardware systems were installed, 13662 software systems were installed and video-conferencing facilities were installed in 840 locations. case information software (CIS) model 1.0, installed in all district courts, due to which the case history of 2.2crore cases is available online. The second phase was from 4 August, 2015 till 4years or until the project is completed. It had a capital infusion of Rs.1617 crores. CIS 3.0 is based on an open source software, Ubuntu, and thus, it saved 340 crores. One of the key feature of CIS is CNR. It is a unique identifier attached to each case, which can be converted to QR code, the QR code can be scanned for getting the case-history. Another pilot project in this phase was the E-seva kendra in the High court. These centers give access to citizens and the advocates easily to various facilities of the court, which they might be unable to access otherwise. The case details can be obtained by the sending an SMS with the CNR. Other relevant features are the data health card, which is a built-in feature for determining missing data and the facility to hide the name of parties when the parties have to be protected(ex- rape cases, matrimonial disputes). As a successful example of the virtual courts project, His Lordship mentioned the traffic officers of Delhi. Earlier, 20 judicial officers did the work of traffic officers. After the incorporation of virtual courts software, these 20 officers have been replaced by one officer. Due to this, 7,32,061 cases have been disposed and Rs. 89.4 crore have been realized by fine. After the success of the pilot project, virtual courts are being established in other cities for traffic courts.
- Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS)- Under the ICJS, live exchange of electronic data between courts and all elements of the criminal justice system takes place. All metadata becomes available for the tracking. The pilot study was conducted in Telangana. Around 60% of delay of Indian courts happens because of the non-service of the summons. To tackle this problem, the N-step application has been developed. It is centralized service of summons. The summons are served with a GPS enabled electronic device, location is tracked, photo and signature is taken.
C. Vision: While explaining his vision for the future, his Lordship relied on the principles laid down in Richard Suskin’s book on virtual courts. His Lordship’s vision for the future is as follows:
- Technological interference between disputes which get the court resolved through open and transparent processes. Technology should be employed as a means to enhance access to justice to common citizens and be considered as an intrinsic part of rule of law. Justice should be looked upon, not only as a sovereign function, but also as a service which is provided to the community. The TRAI data on internet penetration (by 2021 internet users are 600 million internet users) and internet density (55% in India) shows that even now, many people do not have the service to access the internet. It must be ensured that technological divide should not be a means of exclusion but inclusion in access to justice.
- Dispute containment- Only those disputes which require resolution, should reach the court. Online mediation and conciliation should be encouraged.
- Dispute avoidance- Steps should be taken to ensure that a problem does not reach dispute. Technology can be used as a means to enable the inclusion of the dispute avoidance within the ambits of the court.
- Legal health- The awareness and accessibility to the courts should be increased. The paradox today is that you have to be a lawyer to understand when you need a lawyer! The lack of awareness of the rights and remedies available to the people can be reduced or ended by increasing awareness and dispensing information by using technology. The E-courts project must operate on open access Application Programming Interface (API). Open API should be made available to the government and private citizens. Digitization and e-filing should be uniform across the country and it should be inclusive in nature i.e. it should increase accessibility to the visually impaired. Technology should increase trust, empathy, sustainability and transparency (TEST) in the judicial proceedings.
(Note: Ms Snehal Kanzarkar is a Fifth year law Student at MNLU Mumbai)