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Sunday, August 07, 2022

Digitisation will ensure speedy, efficient delivery of justice

Syed Ali Murtaza Naqvi writes: Digitisation of court records, e-filing of cases and their virtual hearing, live streaming of court proceedings are particularly important.

Written by Syed Ali Murtaza Naqvi |
Updated: May 28, 2022 8:44:02 am
The Indian judiciary has increasingly started using technology and the change is reflected in the legal profession in general as well. (Express File)

Richard Eric Susskind in his book, The Future of Law, wrote that in the coming years, lawyers and their litigants would communicate through email. In Online Courts and the Future of Justice, he contended that technology will bring drastic changes in the field of law and will transform the Court system.

The Indian judiciary has increasingly started using technology and the change is reflected in the legal profession in general as well. Some significant developments had taken place before the Covid –19 crisis in 2020, with the digitisation of judicial records and establishing of e-courts. Hence, it is imperative that the use of digital technology be discussed to better utilise its potential, particularly in terms of digitisation of court records, e-filing of cases and their virtual hearing, live streaming of court proceedings.

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In India, e-governance in the field of administration of justice began in the late 1990s, but it accelerated after the enactment of the Information and Technology Act, 2000. As the 21st century began, the focus was on digitising the court’s records and establishing e- courts across the country. In the year of 2006, e-courts were launched as a part of the National e-Governance Plan (NEGP).

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In this regard, the Allahabad High Court is a guiding example. When he was the Chief Justice of Allahabad HC, Justice D Y Chandrachud had conceptualised and initiated the project to digitise approximately one crore case files in one year. This was necessary as not only was a large space required to store so many files, it was also becoming difficult to manually preserve the decades-old documents. Another purpose was to ensure that these files are traceable electronically as and when required. The consequences of missing court records are grave. In State of Uttar Pradesh v. Abhay Raj Singh, it was held by the Supreme Court that if court records go missing and re-construction is not possible, the courts are bound to set aside the conviction. Thus, convicts can go free for want of court records. This is not a rare occurrence and in many old cases, criminal records are found to go missing thereby leading to the acquittal of the accused.

The time consumed in summoning records from the lower courts to the appellate courts is one of the major factors causing delays in cases. With digitisation, it will take much less time for the lower courts to transmit the records as and when called for. It has also been observed that cases are adjourned simply because affidavits filed several years ago were not restored with the record or were not traceable. Once the documents are digitised and e-filed by counsels, at least the cases would not get adjourned by the courts on this account.

Once a lawyer or a litigant files a case digitally, he or she can check the status of the filing, the status of applications and affidavits, date of the next hearing, orders passed by the courts etc. just by clicking on an app. The lawyers benefit because they or their staff are no longer required to visit the reporting sections or other sections of the court to know about the status of their cases. This has been sought to be implemented by the e-Committee of the Supreme Court by issuing directions to ensure that e-filing of cases/petitions by state governments in all matters be made mandatory from January 1, 2022.

Before the pandemic, virtual hearings were used only in a limited manner; for example, in criminal cases where it was not possible to produce the accused physically before the court or while extending the remand of the accused. Not every case can be disposed of virtually, however. Cases related to matrimonial issues and domestic violence, bounced cheques, motor accident compensation referred to mediation centres and lok adalats could be included in the list of cases fit for disposal through the virtual hearing.

The hearing of matrimonial cases through video-conferencing was approved by the Supreme Court in the matter of Krishna Veni Nagam v Harish Nagam (2017), however, the direction was short-lived and a coordinate bench of the Supreme Court in the case of Santhini v Vijaya Venkatesh (2018) referred the matter for reconsideration before a larger bench. Recently, the Supreme Court in Anjali Brahmawar Chauhan v Navin Chauhan allowed the family court, Gautam Buddha Nagar, to conduct the trial of a matrimonial case through videoconferencing.

In 2018, the Supreme Court allowed the live-streaming of cases of constitutional and national importance on the basis of the judgment in Swapnil Tripathi. The livestreaming of court proceedings is a step towards ensuring transparency and openness.

While several reservations were expressed against it, the Gujarat HC in July 2021 became the first court in the country to livestream its proceedings. The legal and technical impediments in the process of livestreaming were ably done away under the leadership of Justice Vikram Nath, the then Chief Justice of Gujarat HC. Its example was followed by other HCs like Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Patna.

Internet connectivity issues and the need for a well-equipped space where lawyers can conduct their cases are some of the major problems requiring attention. Political will and the support of judges and lawyers are also necessary. Judges, court staff and lawyers are not well-versed with digital technology and its benefits. The need of the hour is for them to be made aware of these and receive adequate training. Virtual hearings cannot be a substitute for physical court hearings in all cases. However, in appropriate cases and certain categories of cases as identified by the court administration in consultation with the members of the Bar, virtual hearing should be made mandatory.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 28, 2022 under the title ‘Justice, a click away’. The writer is additional government advocate, Allahabad High Court

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First published on: 28-05-2022 at 03:40:56 am
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