The Finance Minister of India Mrs. Nirmala Sitharaman had announced union budget 2023-2024 on 01.02.2013. That in the said budget Hon’ble FMO announced about the allocation of Rs. 7,000 Crore for the phase-III E-court projects for efficient, speedy & easy administration of Justice.
The draft “Digital Courts Vision & Roadmap for the Phase-III” of the E-court project is available in the website of Ministry of law & justice. That in the said draft detailed overview of the Phase-III E-court projects is being outlaid. That the said draft was prepared by the Expert Sub-Committee under the supervision of Supreme Court E-Committee Chaired by CJI Dr.
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. In June 2020, the said E-Committee invited research institution/personnel such as Agami, Daksh and Vidhi Center for Legal Policy to draw the vision draft in collaboration with the E-Committee.
The said draft consists of 85 pages briefly discussing about the challenges which are facing by the litigants/lawyers/judges because of the current judicial process & system. It also discussed about the advantages availed by the litigants/lawyers/judges from the Phase-I & Phase-II of the E-Court Projects.
In the said draft vision & roadmap of the next phase of the E-Court project are discussed in detail. That introductory part of draft phase-III E-Court Project at page-22 starts with a heading “Vision for Phase III” & also with a famous quotation of hon’ble Late Sh. M.K. Gandhi…….
“I will give you a talisman………………………………………………………..
………………… Then you will find your doubts and yourself melt away.”
That the E-Committee believes that the vision is already rooted in the Gandhiji’s Talisman. In this article, we will discuss about the key-highlights of the same & also observe about the changes which may cause in the administration of justice after the implementation of the said Phase-III E-court project.
That the E-Committee Strongly emphasizes about adoption of latest technology for better delivery of justice. That the committee observed that the latest technology shall reduce the burden of filing of cases, hearing of the cases, inspection of court records & better management of cases etc. Further, said committee also believes that the integration of technology in the justice system will also ensure better transparency in the judicial system which shall help the litigants & lawyers, whosoever approaches the judiciary seeking justice.
That the vision for the Phase-III E-Court Projects is focused upon four crucial aspects:
Core Values of Vision for the Phase-III E-Court Projects is based upon four facets i.e. Trust, Empathy, Sustainability & Transparency. That the said Committee believes that the digitalization will increase the trust of the common people in the judicial system as they will be better aware about their rights & shall approach the court easily for the enforcement of their rights.
Committee believes that the applied empathy in implementation and adoption of technologies will enable the system more user friendly especially in the time of filing, availing case information, scheduling, and it will ease overall litigation process. Further, it believes that availability of orders, judgments & court records in multi-languages will also helps the litigants/lawyers to understand their cases easily.
Committee believes that the digitalization will help in also makes judicial process more environmental & economical friendly. It emphasizes that the less paper based filings, restricted physical movement of documents from one court to another and less travel/movement of lawyers, litigants and other judicial officers will reduce the carbon footprint of the courts & the same will help in the attainment of sustainability.
Committee believes that the functioning of open will increase more transparency, better accountability & awareness about the functioning of the judicial system. In this regard the Committee also proposed that design of open courts should be governed by a data protection technology and also be cautious about the privacy and security of parties while preserving the integrity of the judicial process.
KEY GOALS FOR PHASE-III
That the in order to achieve the vision & mission for the Phase-III project & to reduce the hurdles that may be come in the way in future , the said Committee has proposed certain crucial aspects in the draft. That while implementing the project agency must ensure that there must be easy access to the relevant hardware, development of required digital infrastructure and easy & smooth access to crucial services. Committee proposes while developing the infrastructure & services, it must ensure that ecosystem capabilities for dispute mitigation and containment must also be strengthened through latest improved technology and institutional design regularly.
- Installation of relevant hardware: Committee proposes that a crucial pre-requirement for Digital Courts is to have speedy, steady & reliable internet Connection in all courts, power supply and the required hardware should be in a usable condition so that the same can deliver digital services.
- Create the digital infrastructure: Some of the crucial & prioritized digital platforms for Phase III are:
- Digital case registry
- A comprehensive and updated repository of case law
- Make documents machine readable and secure
- Intelligent Scheduling
- Interoperable Criminal Justice System
- Services: Committee proposes that while developing the infrastructure, services will have to be designed in such a way that it shall fit with necessary amendments to applicable laws. Some of the aspects which will be given priority in the Phase-III projects are as follows:
- Digital Case Management Systems
- Open Digital Hearings
- Service of Notice
- Remote digital assistance
- Administration of Legal Aid
- Virtual Court
LOOK OF FUTURE DIGITAL COURT
That in the said draft there is an insight image of a future Digital Court’s Look. The image will demonstrate the function of digital court in civil cases.
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The draft suggests that from initial filing to pronouncement of judgment & up-to execution proceedings everything shall be done through online process. There will be separate docket to submit court-fees by paying online fees. Further, there will be choice of litigation or alternative dispute resolution & mediation. A Litigant/Lawyer can choose any forum with the help of links available in their account/case profile. There will be option of transfering of documents from one forum to another.
BENEFITS & ADVANTAGES OF THE PARTICIPANTS
Citizens: Committee believes that online filing of cases, different medium of hearing of cases will help the citizens at large as it will reduce the movement or travel from one place to another & they can easily access the courts from any place & time. Further, digital orders in multi languages will help them to understand their cases easily & they will be more aware & vigilant about their rights & duties. Furthermore, active alerts & information, live-streaming of cases & open data will increases transparency & trust in the judicial system.
Lawyers: Committee believes that digitalization will help the lawyer to file their cases easily, online inspection of judicial records, service of summons/notice to the opposite party & attending of hearing from home or city certainly ease their practice & growth in the profession. Further, availability of court order in regional languages will help many lawyers to pursue their cases easily & effectively. Furthermore, Committee emphasizes that digitalization will help the physically disabled, aged & woman lawyers to pursue their cases from their home easily.
Judges: Committee believes that digitalization will help the hon’ble judges for better adjudication of their cases pending before them as the there will be greater data, information and support for decision making. Further, a unified digital platform will enable them to track the progress of cases from the court of original jurisdiction through appellate courts. Further, intelligent scheduling will support prioritization of cases as well as time management & greater ease to search; track and index digital documents will make it easier for them to access facts and legal precedents in a short time.
Court Staff: Committee believes that automating processes for scrutiny and review of filed documents. Digital filings will optimize time, minimize errors and increase effectiveness of the Registry & also reduce dependence on the physical registry. Further, smart templates for orders and the design of case management systems being available on the top Computer-readable files can reduce work burden of the court staffs.
Judicial & legal system: Committee believes that the digitalization will greatly help in functioning of the judicial of legal system as it helps to track the cases easily which will help them to manage the cases easily & pendency of cases will certainly reduce. Further, online filing will help to reduce paper-based process which will in turn help it to function both economically & environmentally in a long run. Further, there will be increased security and decrease in time and costs for moving of physical documents from one court to another. Furthermore, Seamless integration of the judicial system with that of the police, prisons, prosecution, etc., will improve the speed of information sharing and makes the process easier & effective.
CRITICAL ANANYSIS OF THE PHASE-III PROJECT:
No doubt digitalization of court functioning & process is a welcome move for the betterment of Indian Judicial system. But before analyzing the odds & evens of the Phase-III project, we have to analyze the development & difficulties arose post Phase-1 & Phase-2 of the E-Court Projects. That in the Phase-1 & Phase-2 Projects budget was 639.411 crores and 1670 respectively which is cumulatively less than one third of the Phase-III budget. In the Phase-1 & Phase-2 significant developments were happened such as online availability of the court orders, e-filing of cases, digital documents were made available, virtual hearings, e-court apps to manage cases etc. It is very relevant to mention that virtual hearings & e-filing of cases commonly started post Covid-19 Pandemic. Amid Covid-19, Lawyers/Litigants actually came to know about such facilities. Earlier, there was a lack of awareness among the lawyers & litigants about the same. It is un-doubtful that due to virtual hearings, e-filings & other e-court services; it was manageable for the litigants/lawyers/judges to handle their case proceedings. But, it’s a dark reality due to un or less awareness & practical training, many lawyers were debarred from availing such facilities. We have seen that during the Covid-19 everything was happening in such a hush-hush manner that many lawyers failed to adopt themselves with the E-Court facilities. In rural areas many lawyers failed to participate in the proceedings because they did not have requisite system or equipment to do so. We have seen many lawyers & bar associations had protested & file PIL/Writs to start physical hearing of the courts. We have also seen post pandemic how courts itself turned into physical hearing from virtual hearing. Whether Virtual hearing only a resolution to handle pandemic situation or it’s a transformation to new digital E-court Era? A big question still remains unanswered!
Secondly, digitalization of courts needs proper infrastructure to function. We all know about the Court buildings & infrastructure in many rural & urban areas & several cities also. It will not be surprised to hear that in many states court infrastructure are so poor that even standard basic amenities are not available for the hon’ble judges, lawyers & Litigants. If there is not steady electricity then we can imagine how steady & fast internet connectivity would be.
Thirdly, E-Court services & virtual hearing offers any advocate to appear & handle cases before any court throughout the country. But in today’s scenario any advocate who wants to appear or plead before the court falls under the jurisdiction of any state(s) other than state in which he is enrolled, have to engage a local counsel to do so. These local counsels assists the main arguing counsel throughout the court proceedings by taking adjournments & by appearing on miscellaneous hearing dates & by doing other miscellaneous works such as application or procurement of certified documents etc & for doing so they charged fees to the litigants/main lawyers. Further, in many states litigants who have good paying capacity prefers lawyers from metro cities to handle their cases and E-Courts actually fulfills such preferment because as discussed above virtual hearing & e-filing offers opportunity to a lawyer to handle any case from any corner of the country. In that case, it is hard to imagine now how will be the situation of many local lawyers of respective states after the implementation of the Phase-III project. We also have to wait for the action or reaction of the respective states Local Bar Associations in this regard. It is un-doubtful that after the implementation that after the implementation of the Phase-III project if done in a planned & proper manner will improve the quality of the legal system and we hope that multi-lingual concept will help the interests of all the litigants & lawyers across the country, if any such unpleasant experience happens in future. Multi-Lingual concept will certainly remove English language barrier for many lawyers/litigants.
Lastly, in the vision draft it is quite unclear that how examination of chief & cross-examination of the witnesses will be done. At page 48 of the draft it is mentioned that litigants/lawyers can file their list of witnesses through online mode & the hon’ble Judge will grant access to the parties. During covid-19 pandemic period when hearing were conducted through virtual mode, we have witnessed that hon’ble judges were giving adjournments & automatic dates on the matter which were at the stage of recording of evidence & cross-examination. If the statements are recorded & cross-examinations are done through virtual mode then there will be high chance of tutoring of the witness which is commonly not possible in physical hearing. We have to wait to see how such types of issues are redressed by the hon’ble judges after the implementation of the project.
SUGGESTIONS WHICH MAY TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT:
During Pre-Implementation period, it is the duty of the Government & Judiciary to make the court infrastructure up-to a standard so that E-Court Facilities actually benefits the people. More focus should be given on the courts situated at rural & urban areas. For this I think allocation of the funds should be at higher scale.
Relevant government bodies & judiciary should organized seminars & practical training camps across the country so that lawyers can get training & adopt themselves with the new changes. In turn they will assist their litigants or clients to adopt themselves with the new changes. That discussions & suggestions of the respective state & district bar association are very important to safeguard the interests of the lawyers.
We all aware about the economic crisis being faced by many lawyers across the countries especially young lawyers, so govt. should allocate funds for these lawyers to purchase necessary equipments at subsidized rate so that they do not face any problem to adopt themselves with the new changes.
Lastly, I would like to suggest that after the implementation of the new project physical filing & physical hearing or hybrid hearing should be remained open for a certain period of time so that every lawyer & litigants get themselves comfortable with the new changes. Changes are digestible if it is made slowly & gradually.
In the light of aforesaid dicussion, we also believes that the Phase-III of the E-court project will be a bone to our legal system. The transformtaion of the court structure will definitely helps the litigants, lawyers & judges to fulfil their respective duties. I hope justice will be seamless as seamless hearing as proposed in the draft. It has hard to imagine now what will be our future legal system after the implementation period but for many lawyers will miss the courtroom culture like carrrying court files; interraction amoung fellow lawyers; nervous before arguments before full courtrooms; discussions regarding cases in the lobby or canteen rooms etc. Next generation lawyers may not be able to see such types of court culture. However, one has to accept the changes & also have to be prepared for such changes. But, I hope the changes will not override the justice.
Bio of the Author:
R. Madhav Bera
An Advocate practising in Supreme Court , High Court & various District Courts & Tribunals etc. at Delhi.