The Supreme Court was hoping to start tapping artificial intelligence to reform its processes in March but then came COVID-19 and, as it has done across the board, the outbreak pushed all plans to the backburner and has forced a rethink in the judiciary as well. In an interview at his office in his residence, Chief Justice of India Justice S A Bobde spoke to The Indian Express on his vision for the Court in the post-COVID world.
This is the time of webcasts and hearings… Could this have been the opportunity for making the Court much more open?
That is a wider issue, whether to televise Court proceedings or not. That needs to be seen as to which case should be televised, and those important hearings are not taking place, we are not dealing with it, we are currently in fire-fighting mode, new technology — that is, old actions in a new way.
To what extent has the COVID effect led to a decline in Court activity?
In January this year, there were up to 205 filings per day and a total of 4,108 for the month. In April, the e-filing is just 305 so far (until April 26). That gives you some idea of the extent of the impact of COVID.
What is the Supreme Court doing at a time when there are major challenges to right to livelihood, migrant populations, medical care as well as threats to right to life, Article 21, which the Court has so well-defined?
It is a huge challenge and I am not sure we can do it only by reading opposing affidavits in Court. We have asked the government to report to us on the actions they are taking in all this: medical, nutritional, regarding shelter and transportation and whether transportation is consistent with social distancing norms. We have made provisions for states for the release of prisoners, enabled the freeing of those held in detention centres in Assam.
A monitoring committee or oversight by the Supreme Court could help?
Officers, by the very nature of their jobs are present in each of the 700 plus districts. The Court cannot monitor activities of all officers in districts. We can certainly ask and have asked government what is being done and they have reported steps they are taking, there is no reason to find fault.
There are a large number of important cases of habeas corpus in Jammu and Kashmir, electoral bonds, digital privacy and other rights and other Constitutional matters. When will they be heard?
These and so many other matters are there, I cannot say when they will be heard but we will certainly hear them.
Habeas Corpus should be the most urgent petition?
On Habeas and others, we are conscious of the nature of these petitions and they will be decided.
Will there be a summer vacation this year?
That is yet to be decided. The Committee in the Court that is looking at this (consisting of Justices R Nariman, U U Lalit, A M Khanwilkar and L Nageswara Rao) will submit its report to me at the end of the lockdown and in any case the full court has to decide on this. We are mandated to work 210 days in every calendar year.
What is your vision of the Judiciary in the post-Covid world?
The entire fraternity of judges and lawyers would have realised what is essential to the judicial process and what is not. There would have been the realisation that there needs to be a different emphasis for a more just society and that problems can be addressed in many ways other than the traditional ones.
Justice can be equally done without robes or congregation. This was always so but now people would have experienced it. The older generation of lawyers and judges would undoubtedly feel a little uncomfortable with the new introductions of features like video-conferencing, e-filing and the absence of the usual kind of an “audience.” One senior advocate has remarked that “we will have learnt not to interrupt our opponents” which is how it should be in any way.
I think the litigating public, judges and lawyers would have realised that such large congregations are not necessary in the administration of justice. Maybe the importance of the brief, precise argument, oral or written, would have been established.
So also, the pleadings. The transmission of records from one court to another would be far more efficient.
In January 2020, from district and taluka courts to high courts, there were 26.84 lakh pages that were transmitted! Then there is paper work from high courts to the Supreme Court. So that is the volume currently, then is the matter of speed. With digital keeping, that is also speeded up, as the moment an appeal is filed, from a district court, the judgment to a high court, the entire record can be transmitted by the High Court over the Net.
The digitisation of records, though we are some distance from achieving it as this crisis of Covid erupted, but if this happens in each of the 17,500 district courts, of course, the problem of authentication of these digital records is there, to prevent tampering. We are looking at that but, hopefully, this digital culture would strike roots. Then this would be the basis for the Artificial Intelligence (AI) which we can then introduce. It will be most effective when it has electronic data to work on. We were meant to launch AI in March but could not do so. An algorithm has enormous speed. 10 lakh words per second!
The most important thing is that there is a shift in consciousness, the legal community during the lockdown has been forced to deal with the electronic medium and it is conscious of the importance of electronic transmission, making submissions, records can also be transmitted by advocates via emails and WhatsApp to the Registry. If email fails then WhatsApp is the ‘stand-by’ mode.
What is the relationship between the Judiciary and the Executive, and other pillars in a democracy, as this has been discussed recently.
It is a Constitutional relationship, defined by the Constitution of India. The Judiciary has primacy in the judicial field, the Legislature in its field and the Executive in its field.
So you do not think it is important for the Judiciary to ‘ease’ the path of the Executive?
There is a well-known term called “judicial review” which is a power the Courts have, as it is the Judiciary which has to decide if their (Executive’s) actions are in accordance with the Constitution.
Anything else you may wish to say?
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