Due to the pandemic and consequent lockdown, 2020 saw courts across the country switching to virtual proceedings that judges, lawyers and litigants attended from different locations. Justice (retired) of the Bombay High Court, RC Chavan, the vice-chairperson of the Supreme Court e-committee on the technological changes in the judicial system, tells The Indian Express that the pandemic provided the opportunity to push for virtual courts and e-filing of cases.
How do you see the year gone by and the changes it brought to the judiciary?
Due to the pandemic, physical appearances by parties in courts were not possible. We took this opportunity to push for virtual hearings and e-filing. This is not just for the pandemic, rather a permanent solution to reduce footfall in courts. Otherwise, too, courts are overcrowded with more than 3.5 crore cases pending, with most between 3-5 years. It is necessary to push for virtual courts, e-filing, and we have been working on this for long, but the pandemic provided the opportunity to push for these initiatives. The facilities to an extent were in place. For instance, the video-conferencing equipment though rudimentary was present in many courts. Last year, the infrastructure was augmented to ensure that video-conferencing is available in all courts.
We also implemented intelligent scheduling. This was to ensure that people do not rush to court at 11am when they open. Litigants and lawyers were given a time schedule through staggered timings for appearance. We also set up a system for staggering the causelist. Hundreds of cases are listed in courts daily and not all of them are taken up for hearing. During the pandemic, since courts were working in limited shifts, a Covid-19 plan was set up to enable all courts to adjourn the cases in advance, and send SMSes to the parties concerned. Close to a crore SMSes were sent across the country under this plan. This served as an electronic pass to enter the courts.
Some lawyer associations were apprehensive about trials being held virtually. Recently, Supreme Court judges also commented on the glitches being experienced in these virtual hearings. How will that be resolved?
Yes, it is true. When we start something new, some hiccups are bound to happen. When we started using technology, there were some issues. The main concern is of adequate bandwidth. We had a meeting with the joint secretary of the Department of Justice. There are about 100 places such as some courts in Lakshadweep, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Jammu and Kashmir and some districts in the Northeast which are not connected as yet due to connectivity problems. You will be surprised to know, in Mumbai, the juvenile court is also facing this problem. We discussed in the meeting that if BSNL or MTNL connectivity is a problem in these areas, there can be satellite connectivity in these courts. During the pandemic, there was a high demand as people were working from home. Internet providers too will have to augment the supply accordingly.
Another issue was video-conference licences. We initially worked on Zoom. Now, 3,500 licenses of Vidyo Connect have been acquired and provided to courts last year.
Also, the Chief Justice of India spoke of technology divide. We took note of that. An e-service centre was inaugurated in his home town in Nagpur. These centres have since been set up in almost all district courts and High Courts where all services are provided free of charge. There are some courts where this has not been possible but it will be set up. We also discussed in the meeting to request legal services authority to enable use of their mobile vans to ensure access of these facilities to those who cannot reach courts.
What about rural areas?
In rural areas, every gram panchayat has a citizen service centre. In Maharashtra, I have spoken to Hasan Mushrif, the minister for rural development, about allowing these centres to be used by people to access e-courts since they have the facilities available, including computers and printers. This is already being done in some states and we are positive about extending this facility in remote villages as well.
One aspect, which we also hope to improve upon, is that currently courts require physical copies to be filed within seven days of e-filing. This negates the purpose of e-filing and burdens courts with heaps of documents which can be avoided.
The Supreme Court had issued guidelines to allow live-streaming of court proceedings. What is the status of that and will it eventually trickle down to trial courts to bring about more transparency?
The chairperson of the e-committee, Justice DY Chandrachud, who is the author of the judgment (on allowing live-streaming), is concerned that we should begin live-streaming promptly. We are in the process of finalising live-streaming rules and at least 10 meetings have been held so far. One concern is the bandwidth which will be required to beam proceedings from 18,000 courts. We are trying to suggest that in all cases of public importance, live-streaming will be a must. Cases of violence against women and children, in-camera proceedings will not be included. In other cases, we are suggesting that if there is no demand for it, only those who want a link to the proceedings will be provided access. This is the framework which will hopefully be finalised by this month. It will be discussed by a committee of five judges from five High Courts. Video-conferencing will be used and augmented as required.
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