COVID-19 AND ACCESS TO JUSTICE
Author: Akanksha Maurya, pursing BALLB from Ramaiah College of Law,Bangalore.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 has shut down everything and there has been a denial of rights and difficulty reaching justice. The Indian Judicial system is still not the most preferred platform for most of the Indian citizens. Majority of the people are opting for non-judicial mechanisms to avoid the hectic litigation, complications, and its expense.
Lower class groups are mostly affected by it who have no choice but to go for an out-of-court settlement. According to a survey done by DAKSHA, (an NGO working on judicial accountability) shows poor views of Indian Judicial system. More than 50% of the citizens avoid going to courts because of the complications and the time-taking procedures. On average, a civil case takes more than 4-5 years to finish and the slow-moving judiciary needs to go paperless to enhance judicial productivity. Digitized Courts will prove to be a major step in the evolution of India’s legal framework and will play a major role in boosting the confidence of the Courts.
In Re: Guidelines for court functioning through video conferencing during Covid-19 pandemic (Suo Moto Covid-19, 2020), the Supreme Court has necessitated the immediate adoption of measures to ensure social distancing to prevent the transmission of the virus.
WHAT ARE DIGITAL COURTS?
Digital courts are a platform where the trial of cases is done electronically and includes all kinds of fresh registered or pending cases. The Standard software and area’s internet are required to promote the affectivity of these courts. The first digital court has been established in Hyderabad for both Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.
On digitizing the Supreme Court, Former Chief Justice of India J S Khehar said:
"This programme is the resource from the database which exists. So, if you are filing an appeal in the Supreme Court from a case in the High Court, all you need to do is to put in the number of the case you are filing. And besides that, you have to file the grounds. As soon as you file the grounds, the entire paper book of the High Court gets transferred to the Supreme Court. So, the paperwork of the Supreme Court is finished. It is replaced by the grounds of appeal. (India today, 2018)"
The e-court Mission Mode Project (MMP) was conceptualized based on National Policy and ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in the judiciary with a vision to transform the Indian judiciary with the help of technology, making it fast- track and cost-effective. It aims to develop the automated decision making and decision support system in courts all over the country. The scope of this court to enhance and develop the productivity of the courts through interconnectivity between the Taluk Courts to the Apex Courts. The digitization of courts is crucial not only to keep pace with public expectations but also to serve as the foundation for improving the efficacy of Courts throughout the system. The key benefits of digitization are described as below:
Replacement of paper with computer digital Courts are connected to NJDG (National Judicial Data Grid) which is a data monitoring site. It helps in case management resources. Tracking of cases and transcription of shreds of evidence have become easier through NJDG.
Faster disposal of cases
The electronic filing service allows the filing of documents online without going to the court. Each party can access these documents and thus, it reduces the paperwork of the court and keeps a proper record of the Court documents.
Certain District Courts all over India allow the filing of Court fees online in the form of e-challan and they update the number of cases and their status on the Court website, which eventually lessens the travel expenses of the parties leading to a more convenient way of filing the documents and paying fees online.
The digitization of courts reduces corruption, especially in lower courts. The removal of the human element from the court processes would ease the burden of common people and the track of Court records can be traced properly through the websites.
Digitization of courts has its perks but also a few drawbacks. Digitization of courts is a great idea in theory but nearly impossible to put in practice. To implement it, every step of the litigation process needs to be digitized such as filing of the suit, payment of court fees, submissions of arguments and shreds of evidence etc. In a vast country like India, it is very difficult to imagine the financial and technological resources needed for such an endeavour.
Some of the drawbacks are:
Automated systems can be cumbersome, and costly for the government because it needs maintenance daily which may also cause delays.
The digitized courts require skilled staff who can administer the process effectively, adding cost for training.
Computer malfunctions can lead to misappropriation of documents and errors might require retrials, making the process more hindering.
Thus, the digitizing of Courts is an efficient way to increase judicial qualitative and quantitative work. The necessity of digitized courts is greater due to COVID-19 pandemic. In a populated country like India, to improve the quality of justice, digitized courts are the need of the hour because everyone does not have access to courts.
It can also help to build trust among citizens in the judicial process. Establishing digital courts can bring transparency and accountability in the judicial system and may be very helpful in bringing a lot more judicial reforms in India. But we need to look at both pros and cons of the digitization of the courts, in a country where more than 287 million of the population is uneducated and not aware of the technological advancements, there is a greater need to educate people and circulate the knowledge about the use of a digital process which will eventually be helpful and cost-effective for them.
The Government can take up an initiative by creating awareness around e-court through seminars and roadshows which can help to bring to light the facilities and ease of the digital courts. Also, conducting training sessions to familiarize the Judges with the digital Court process and procedure can give a huge strength to the successful running of Courts. One aspect that can be concentrated is a robust security system to maximize the safety and guarantee of the documents and provide secure access of the cases to the concerned parties. Lastly, digitization of the Supreme Court should be prioritized and then slowly move to the lower courts for the smooth functioning of the Courts.