Covid-19 and attendant social distancing give the judiciary an opportunity to move on this for enhanced efficiency
After the Kerala and Bombay High Courts’ successful use of a video-conferencing app to live-stream proceedings, courts in India, including the lower courts, need to roll this out on a war footing. The Covid-19 outbreak and the concomitant social distancing requirements make this an imperative. On March 30, Justices AK Jayasankaran Nambiar and Shaji P Chaly of the Kerala HC took up nearly 30 urgent matters from their homes via the video conferencing app, Zoom. Advocates too participated in the proceedings from their residences/offices, while the law officers of the state and the Centre were also logged in. On April 9, Justice Gautum S Patel of the Bombay High Court heard nine listed cases and one urgent matter from his home, in an open-for-all public video conference through Zoom, with nearly 500 participants, including lawyers, court staff, journalists, etc. While the Kerala High Court put up a protocol (centred on the Zoom app) on March 24, the Supreme Court released guidelines for court functioning through video-conferencing on April 6, despite having agreed to live-streaming of court proceedings in July 2018.
The National e-Governance Plan had envisaged e-Courts as a mission-mode project in 2006—e-Courts would be paperless with a large database of case records and other legal data, and courtrooms would be equipped for video-conferencing, among other things. While there has been significant progress in some areas—whatever digitisation of case records has been achieved so far, has helped fast-track justice delivery—in others, it is yet to reach the desired pace. Hearings through video-conferencing between the courtroom and jails, for instance, aimed to bring down costs and delays, incurred in ferrying undertrials from the jail to the courts and back. However, in 2019, the average number of video calls made in 25 states (excluding Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, that each had nearly 50,000 video calls) was just 2,400, with some states having made just double-digit video calls.
The slow pace of adoption of technology by the judiciary is rather shocking given technology can deliver significant efficiency and transparency gains. More so, when this is read against the fact that there are nearly 3.2 crore cases pending in the lower courts. The judiciary should treat the Covid-19 outbreak as an opportunity to reorient itself on tech-adoption. It can perhaps begin with making video-conferencing and live-streaming of proceedings compulsory for most cases.
Chief Justice of India SA Bobde has talked of deploying AI in the judicial system. This can build on the judicial databases created under the e-Courts mission-mode project—for instance, AI can trawl case records to find the appropriate judgment for a judge to cite, or perhaps even help in processing case queries. The judiciary needs to ensure that it doesn’t miss the bus on such use of AI—of course, while ensuring that biases don’t creep in. At the same time, it also needs to take small, tech-savvy steps that can improve justice delivery. For instance, while some courts have approved the use of WhatsApp and e-mails to deliver summons, most courts in the country treat only the paper summons as sacrosanct. The Indian judiciary has to make up for lost time, and keep up with the times, when it comes to adopting technology.