Stimulus package for e-courts

The traditionally conformist judiciary has been forced to take a quantum leap into the virtual world by a tiny virus. For eight months, the Supreme Court e-committee has been grappling with the challenges faced during the lockdown period. Now the Supreme Court is said to be ready with a comprehensive scheme for live-streaming proceedings in all courts in the country.

Though the Supreme Court had delivered a judgment two years ago, agreeing in principle to live-streaming of proceedings, little was done to follow it up due to lethargy in judicial administration. The Gujarat High Court made headlines last month when it became the first to take the Supreme Court judgment seriously and live-streamed its proceedings on YouTube as an experiment. The results are not available.

The Supreme Court panel has a heavy task ahead because it aims at devising a comprehensive scheme for all the 25 high courts and some 20,000 subordinate courts. If the experiment had started with a prototype in the Supreme Court itself, followed by a pilot project in the high courts, the results could be studied sooner. Other courts could have adopted the final scheme.

Virtual courts (VC), which have been accepted as the new normal all over the world, will facilitate live-streaming easily. There are calls for giving it statutory recognition. Currently it is the judiciary that is setting the procedure, widening the scope of the civil and criminal procedure codes and the law of evidence. Amending them is a huge task for the lawmakers. Most high courts and the Supreme Court have to modify their own rules of procedure and include live-streaming.

It is claimed by the law ministry that between March 24 and September 31, the 25 high courts heard 6,88,318 cases via video-conferencing and nearly 19,000 district courts heard 19,33,492 cases virtually in the same period. Most of these have dealt with interim applications as in grant of bail. The number of substantial judgements delivered has fallen steeply. The more important cases involving fundamental rights and constitutional questions are on the back burner for the time being. Exceptions are made for exceptionally prominent and influential accused persons.

The stimulus package for virtual courts and their streamlining must clarify a number of constitutional issues. They should assuage concerns about data protection and confidentiality of evidence, including the rights of accused persons and witnesses. Hacking, unauthorised recording of online proceedings are other areas of concern. Once online hearings are declared official proceedings and open to the public, the law of contempt of court would also apply. The project must be a multi-agency endeavour involving all stake-holders like the police and family law experts. There should be candid guidelines on priority in listing cases, which is now an intense point of debate. The interests of rural areas where broadband facilities are not adequate must be built in.

While the existing 30 million case arrears have remained steady, there is bound to be a second wave of litigation. Many claims might have remained bottled-up during the pandemic because courts were handicapped for months. They will spring up the moment the courts become normal. Therefore, the VC project should be prospective, ready to tackle the upsurge of suits in the near future.

The biggest constraint in establishing VCs would be fiscal. Since the Budget season is coming soon, both the central and state governments must consider the new costs of VCs. Even in better times, the judicial system received less than 2 per cent of the allocations. As a result, the district courts and those below lack the minimum infrastructure like proper furniture and toilets. Unless the governments loosen the purse, VCs might be unattainable for years to come. The governments should at least let the courts keep the court fees with them for developing software and other requirements of VCs.

While VCs will benefit litigants who will be spared the trip to distant courts, a large number of lawyers who are not digitally skilled are at present suffering as litigants are going to those who are better equipped to manage their suits. Successful lawyers can attend several courts in the country simultaneously, like participants in TV debates. Therefore, digital skill should be developed among the lesser legal fraternity, not forgetting the aging judiciary. The mission should start from law colleges and make up for the lost time. 

As Alice found in Wonderland, sometimes one has to run to stand where one is.

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