Digital Courts and access to justice

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“Access to justice is indeed a facet of right to life guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution. We need only add that access to justice may as well be the facet of the right guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution, which guarantees equality before law and equal protection of laws to not only citizens but non-citizens also. We say so because equality before law and equal protection of laws is not limited in its application to the realm of executive action that enforces the law. It is as much available in relation to proceedings before courts and tribunal and adjudicatory fora where law is applied and justice administered. The citizen’s inability to access courts or any other adjudicatory mechanism provided for determination of rights and obligations is bound to result in denial of the guarantee contained in Article 14 both in relation to equality before law as well as equal protection of laws. Absence of any adjudicatory mechanism or the inadequacy of such mechanism, needless to say, is bound to prevent those looking for enforcement of their right to equality before laws and equal protection of the laws from seeking redress and thereby negate the guarantee of equality before laws or equal protection of laws and reduce it to a mere teasing illusion. Article 21 of the Constitution apart, access to justice can be said to be part of the guarantee contained in Article 14 as well.” – Anita Kushwaha v. Pushap Sudan, (2016) 8 SCC 509.
It was in the year 2020 when the coronavirus disease engulfed the whole world, leaving incalculable people affected but the Supreme Court rose to the occasion and took effective steps to preserve the rule of law in the country, not to forget the invaluable contribution made by the High Courts of the country in ensuring that access to justice remains approachable. At the time of the pandemic, the Supreme Court and High Courts of the country confronted the challengesconstructively which were caused by COVID-19, while upholding the constitutional obligations to ensure dispensation of justice. The Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorized to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technologies. During the pandemic, it was directed by the Supreme Court that the District Courts in each State shall adopt the mode of Video Conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court and the Court shall duly notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants who do not have the means or access to video conferencing facilities. It was further directed that video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage. The fruitful use of modern technology for enhancing justice dispensation has been profusely encouraged by the Supreme Court of the country so that hearing can be carried out effectively and successfully through virtual mode also.
The Supreme Court has been continuously stating that the technology was not only for pandemic but it is here to stay for future as well. In this regard, the e-Committee of the Supreme Court has been making remarkable strides in implementing the e-Courts Project, conceptualized under the National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary, 2005. The e-Committee seeks to achieve the interlinking of all courts across the country; ICT enablement of the Indian judicial system; enabling courts to enhance judicial productivity, and to make the justice delivery system accessible, cost-effective, transparent and accountable. Phase I and II of the e-Courts Project ensured installation of hardware, software and upgradation of system installed in the courts across the country. COVID-19 has amplified the need for the judiciary to be prepared for confronting such challenges in the future so that access to justice remains obtainable even at difficult times. Now, Phase III of the e-Courts Project aims to build an accessible and transparent judicial system by creating digital courts and ensuring digitization of records. This is essential to achieve the transformative vision of the Constitution and constitutional values of access to justice. In the last budget which has been declared by the Union Government, Rs. 7000 crores have been made available for Phase III of the e-Courts project, which will be used for improving the infrastructure in all the courts of the country. As per the e-Committee, Phase III will enable any litigant or lawyer to file a case from anywhere, lawyers and litigants can plead their cases with certainty of hearings, and judges will be able to adjudicate the matters through video or audio, in-person or in-writing, synchronous or asynchronous hearings. It will also help in creating a system in which the collection of different kinds of fees and rote applications will get simplified.
It will be apposite to enunciate that the Orissa High Court has been doing a remarkable job in implementing the initiatives of the e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India and Odisha has become the first State in the country to have Virtual High Courts in its districts. These Virtual High Courts have video conferencing facilities, a Back Office where advocates will be able to e-file their matters. Advocates or parties not familiar with technology can handover their documents to the staff at the Back Office who will prepare and e-file the matters. The Orissa High Court has also digitized records, introduced paperless courts, established Vulnerable Witness Deposition Centres, etc., in a short span of time to increase access to justice for the people of Odisha. These fruitful steps taken by the Orissa High Court will surely reduce the costs for litigants, increase efficiency and ensure speedy dispensation of justice.
Recently, the High Court of Delhi also launched Digital Courts for Contested Traffic Challansand Bail Orders Sharing Module on e-Prison Platform. The digital traffic courts will adjudicate the challans virtually and conduct the proceedings online, which will include recording of evidence and hearing of arguments. The same will be carried out as per the e-Filing Rules of the High Court of Delhi, 2021 and High Court of Delhi Rules for Video Conferencing for Courts, 2021. The violators can appear through video conferencing and if convicted, can pay the fine online. The bail orders sharing module on e-Prison platform will assist the Delhi High Court and District Courts to share digitally-signed bail orders to under-trials lodged in any jail throughout the country and a list of cases where the prisoner is not released despite grant of bail can also be generated through the platform.
Therefore, Phase III of the e-Courts Project will definitely help in building an accessible and transparent judicial system throughout the country. Digital Courts will play a pivotal role in ensuring inexpensive access to justice for citizens of the country. E-filings and virtual hearings will reduce travel and legal costs, thereby reducing the costs of access to justice for people. Orders of the Courts in many regional languages will help in improving the understanding of the process to justice. Live streaming of cases and open data system will increase transparency and trust in the judicial system. Assistance through e-Seva Kendras will help the people to effectively utilize the services, thereby strengthening the right of access to justice flowing from Article 21 of the Constitution of India. These initiatives will result in the judicial process being more accessible, organized and transparent. With these concerted efforts, everyone is confident that the future of justice looks promising as justice has to be dispensed at all times, in the words of Lord Chief Justice Hewart in the case of R v Sussex Justices ex parte McCarthy ([1924) 1 KB 256, [1923] All ER Rep 233) when his lordship stated, “Justice should not only be done, but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done.”