Justice delayed, as the cliché goes, is justice denied
With over 2.2 crore cases in the courts—at least a tenth of which are over a decade-old—e-Courts, a Mission Mode Project under the National e-Governance Plan, was meant to help fix most of this. Though the project mostly envisages computerisation and ICT-enabling of the lower courts, the idea was also to upgrade the system in the higher courts to track delays and decrease pendency and provide uniform justice across the entire judicial system. Electronic filing of cases and caveat-checking would make these processes faster and easier while digitisation would help aggregate cases pertaining to a similar legal question in a particular court and even across courts—and if there was a Supreme Court ruling on a similar case, judges, as a matter of course, could keep this in mind. If the system worked well, judges would be able to hear undertrials through video-conferencing, even as court libraries got digitised. But as a study by Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy shows, the project has been hobbled by huge delays.
While the first phase of the project, which included providing hardware and software to judicial officers and staff, LAN connectivity and training, was to be completed by 2007—the project was announced in 2005—it is getting completed only now. By 2010, when the second tranche of funds for the first phase was approved, it was found that critical components, such as digitisation of record of existing cases, WAN connectivity and uninterrupted power supply had not been included in deliverables of the first phase—this was then included. Moreover, as the project got delayed, implementation was thrown into disarray with new courts coming up in some complexes which had already been computerised—this means there are complexes where some courts function in the manual mode while the rest are ICT-enabled. Needless to say, the budgets went out of whack, from Rs 442 crore estimated in 2005 to Rs 935 crore approved in 2010, but that is hardly the issue since the project taking off is far more important from the point of view of delivering faster justice. Meanwhile, the second phase which was to originally begin in 2007—before it was pushed to 2014—took off only last year. With the action plan setting no clear deadline for completion, how long that will take is anyone’s guess. That the list of deliverables has been substantially expanded right at the start to avoid the vision deficit that plagued the first phase is the only consolation—the fact remains that the legacy delays, the unavailability of software that can be seamlessly adapted to court functions, the resistance from the beneficiaries of the previous system will prove tough challenges.