Courts are an essential service for civil society. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the courts across India have gone into an urgent-only, online-only mode with electronic filings, email mentions and online hearing for select cases via video conferencing/audio facilities. This is a necessary step to the already burdened judiciary to dispose of the pending cases before the lockdown is lifted. Many have readily adapted to this swift change during these trying times. However, the concept of e-court or a virtual court still has limitations and issues, though the scopes are many. Therefore, necessary solutions must be put forth so that the concept of e-courts is made permanent to certain hearings.
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What are e-courts?
- An “E-court” or an “Electronic Court” is a location in which legal matters are adjudicated upon, in the presence of a qualified judge(s) with well-developed technical infrastructure.
- In an e-court, the entire work is executed digitally, wherein the information shared and generated is stored as a database and synched to particular software.
- The main objective of e-courts is to make justice delivery system affordable, transparent, speedy and accountable while limiting the paper filings.
- E-courts are different from computerised courts. In e-courts, everything is done online by using the internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) tools.
- In contrast, the computerised court is nothing more than a court that is equipped with computers and basic hardware and software.
What are the advantages of e-courts?
- Transparency and accountability: Full information pertaining to the cases will be available online for the public. This reduces the possibility of corruption and ensures just hearing.
- It can also protect the witnesses’ interests and reduces pending cases.
- E-courts can enable registered attorneys to file their case documents directly from their home/office. This ensures efficiency and saves time as these documents can be accessed at any time, anywhere.
- The storage of data related to cases is made efficient as the enhanced technology is used for this purpose. This reduces the possibility of manipulation or loss of data.
- Online hearings can help reduce emissions and the country’s carbon footprint.
What are the challenges faced by e-courts?
- Not all evidence can be produced in digital format.
- E-filing process is complicated and difficult.
- India does not have sufficient techno-legal experts.
- E-courts involve high initial expenditure, as there is a need for computers and related infrastructures. This, in a long-run, would lead to a funding shortage.
- There is a high possibility of hackers manipulating/destroying data used by e-courts due to the lack of secure technologies.
- Advocates are either not computer savvy or do not have access to the necessary infrastructure.
- Not all have access to the supporting infrastructure. The e-courts put some parties at a disadvantage due to their inability to have access to the internet/necessary hardware/software.
- Videoconferencing may not be appropriate for all cases. Cases involving a large number of parties, voluminous documents or complicated questions cannot be supported by e-courts.
Why does India need e-courts?
- Currently, India is under an extended lockdown to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
- Therefore, the country must increase its dependence on e-courts now more than ever, as it is unlikely that the judiciary can function normally for the next few months.
- It is especially vital to ensure dispensation of justice as India, along with the rest of the world, is facing a crisis caused by COVID-19.
- According to national judicial grid data, as many as 37 million cases are pending across the country due to COVID-19.
- The Supreme Court alone has a backlog of around 60,000 cases.
- On 15th April, 8,75,000 cases were adjourned in the District Courts due to COVID-19.
- Furthermore, judicial vacancies in the High Courts are around 36% as there are 389 vacancies.
- Once the nationwide lockdown is lifted, the Indian judiciary will be swamped with more new cases.
- Some of these cases may have emerged due to lockdown itself.
- Therefore, courts will not only have to deal with the pending cases but also the new cases that may arise after the lockdown.
- Thus, this is the appropriate time for the judiciary and the government to seriously consider filing judicial vacancies and use the concept of e-court effectively to reduce pendency of litigation.
What is e-courts Project?
- The e-courts project was conceptualised based on the “National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary, 2005”.
- On 7th August 2013, the Chief Justice of India had launched the e-Courts National Portal of e-Courts project. It enables citizens to get free online access to daily lists of cases and the status and judgement of cases.
- Its objectives are:
- To provide efficient and time-bound citizen-centric service delivery
- To develop, install and implement decision support systems in courts
- To automate the processes to provide transparency and accessibility to information to stakeholders
- To enhance judicial productivity, both quantitatively and qualitatively, to make justice delivery affordable, accessible and cost-effective, predictable, reliable and transparent
- To make the judicial system ICT-enabled by putting in place adequate and modern hardware and connectivity.
- Automation of workflow management in all courts
- Electronic movement of records from taluka/trial to appeal courts
- Installation of videoconferencing facility and recording of witness through video conferencing
- Connecting all courts to National Judicial Data Grid
- Citizen-centric facilities like e-filing, e-payment and use of mobile apps in all courts
- Touch screen based kiosks in all court complexes, full computerisation at state and district level judicial and service academies and centres.
- Through the e-courts project, 39 High Courts complexes and 3,219 District Court complexes in India were computerised.
- The e-courts project has two phases.
- It began in 2007, involving the computerisation of a large number of court complexes, computer server rooms and judicial service centres.
- In this phase, the District and Taluka Court complexes were computerised with the installation of hardware, LAN and case information software (CIS), for providing case-related services to the litigants and lawyers.
- Numerous district courts launched their websites for the convenience of all the stakeholders.
- Judicial officers were trained to make them tech-savvy.
- This phase concluded on 30th March 2015.
- The policy and action plan for this phase was approved by the CJI on 8th January 2014 and the project was sanctioned on 4th August 2015.
- This phase focuses on ensuring the achievement of the rest of the objectives of this project.
How are e-courts used in India?
- Amid the coronavirus crisis, the Supreme Court of India is experimenting with hearing using a video conferencing facility.
- The judiciary has resolved to open virtual courts to hear urgent cases during the lockdown period and provide video-recording of proceedings to litigants and lawyers.
- It also decided to institutionalise e-processes even after normalcy returns.
- The SC currently holds three virtual courts through videoconferencing to hear few urgent cases.
- The top court is currently looking to increase the number of virtual courts so that judges can take up more cases.
Punjab and Haryana
- The Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Courts, in 2019, launched the virtual courts for handling traffic challans matter for the entire State of Haryana.
- This project has been launched under the guidance of the e-committee of the Supreme Court.
- Through this, the judges can view cases received in the virtual courts and the automatic computation of fines on the screen.
- Once the summons is generated, the accused will get information through e-mail or SMS.
- Subsequently, the accused can visit the virtual court website and search for the case.
- If found to be guilty, the accused will have to pay fine displayed on the screen.
- On payment of the fine, the case would be immediately disposed of.
- The software used for this purpose was developed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC).
- The phase II of the project will focus on service delivery to litigants, lawyers and other stakeholders.
- Delhi’s first virtual court was launched to enable online payments of traffic challans.
- The Delhi District Courts, under the guidance of the E-Committee of Supreme Court, has already launched virtual court’s web portal for online payment of traffic challans.
- This portal also has traffic challans that are digitally generated by the Delhi Traffic Police via e-Challan application developed by NIC.
- The violators will be summoned through e-mail and mobile phone.
- This has been considered as a huge milestone in the e-courts project.
- During the on-going pandemic, the Karnataka High Court has turned the concept of the virtual court into a reality by digitally reaching out to advocates even in the remotest areas via live hearing.
- The High Court uses its in-house video conferencing facility in its three Benches at Bengaluru, Dharwad and Kalaburagi.
- On 17th July 2016, e-court was inaugurated at the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad.
- It serves people from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
- India’s second e-court fee system was made operational at Bilaspur High Court to make justice delivery hassle-free, paperless and reduce delays in filing cases.
- E-court fee is a web application that enables paying court fee without the need for obtaining judicial stamps.
- According to the SC’s directive to develop the video conferencing system for hearing cases, the Allahabad High Court has developed a new software by which multiple court proceedings at the high court and district courts across the state can be conducted through virtual courts within the court premises without any internet connectivity.
- With this facility, Uttar Pradesh has become the first state to have a software-based in-house facility of virtual courts.
What can be the way forward?
- As the virtual courts are playing a critical role during crises like a pandemic, it is essential to address the limitations and increase the scope of this concept.
- There is a need for a comprehensive framework that can provide concrete roadmap and direction for the e-court scheme in India.
- The government must establish an effective task force consisting of judges, technologists, court administrators, skill developers and system analysts to provide this framework.
- This task force must be made in charge of:
- Establishing hardware, software and IT systems for courts
- Examine the application of artificial intelligence to generate a database for e-courts projects
- Establishing appropriate e-filing systems and procedures
- Create skill training and recognition for paralegals to understand and help advocates and others to access the system to file cases and add pleadings and documents as case proceeds.
- Once the framework is ready, the High Courts can refer the same to the Rule Committee of the High Court to put forth appropriate rules to operationalize the e-court system.
- The infrastructure necessary to support e-courts must be enhanced. Currently, India’s judicial infrastructure is not equipped to support critical proceedings.
- The cybersecurity must be enhanced to protect information and it must be accessible to only the appropriate parties.
- The technology used must be easy to use and accessible to the general public.
- Personnel must be given specialised training to maintain the data from e-court proceedings.
- The judges and other parties must also be trained so that they are familiarised with e-court proceedings.
- After lifting the lockdown, the judiciary must consider establishing a permanent bench of judges in all courts, which may be called “e-bench”. This bench may hold hearings once a week to hear and decide cases of those advocates and litigants who choose “e-hearing” of their cases.
- The facility also has the potential to enable access to justice by providing necessary information to beneficiaries about numerous government schemes that currently exist.
- While these measures would look promising, without effective implementation and accountability, the whole purpose of e-courts is not achieved.
- To address the issues of implementation and accountability, Legal Service Authorities Act, 1987 and the officers functioning under them all over the country can play a huge role.
- If there is a difficulty in accessing these schemes, a system must be put in place for the applicants to lodge online complaints with the Legal Services who can then ensure accountability and effective implementation.
- The local Panchayat municipal or corporate office or NGOs can assist the complainants to make these online complaints to the Legal Services Authority if they are not able to do it directly.
- The legal services authority can redress the aggrieved complainants according to the law in a time-bound manner.
- The e-court facility can be expanded to address family court matter, insurance disputes and others.
- India is among the countries that currently have the youngest population in the world, making it have the potential to develop the necessary tech-savvy personnel to assist this endeavour.
Virtual courts have the potential to greatly improve the efficiency of the Indian judiciary. The coronavirus outbreak has hastened the process of making virtual courts a reality. However, it is not functional in all of the Indian courts. Virtual hearing is not only needed to address the on-going crisis, as its scope is wide-ranging. To make use of this potential, necessary steps must be taken to address the limitations and issues pertaining to the e-courts/virtual courts so that democracy is safeguarded even during the times of crisis like the COVID-19 outbreak.
Practice questions for mains:
Critically examine the scopes and limitations of e-courts. How can they help during the on-going coronavirus pandemic? (250 words)