By Athik Saleh
Published on: September 13, 2021, at 14:09 IST
The Judiciary is one of the three pillars of democracy.
For many, it is the most important pillar as well. Legislative business and executive authoritarianism are common in a democracy. In such instances, more often than not, the citizens place their faith in the judiciary to enforce democratic values and fundamental freedoms.
In a young democracy like that of India, the importance of the judiciary is magnified. Although it has its flaws, the Indian judiciary, especially the higher judiciary, has come through for the citizens more often than not.
Things changed when the pandemic that struck the world in 2019 made its presence known in India as well. It brought life to a standstill. Like everything and everyone, the judiciary was struck by the deadly virus too. Delivery of justice was in shambles. When the most foundational mandate of an institution is not being fulfilled, its credibility will be called into question. Similarly, the Indian judiciary was staring into an abyss of credibility crisis in the midst of the pandemic.
The pandemic, on the other hand, blessed the judiciary in certain ways. Indian judiciary has always lacked behind when it came to digital access. Digitalization was limited to people being able to access individual cases. The court proceedings were still dependent on an age-old approach. However, like it forced everyone’s hand to embrace a new way of living, the pandemic forced the Indian judiciary to come out of its shell.
India has a history of playing catch up to other top nations when it comes to accepting change. Playing catch up has its benefit though as there is a far lesser number of unknown risks. Similarly, the Indian judiciary will also have to play the catch-up game when it comes to digitalization. It’s the need of the hour though and it is crucial for us to understand how digitalization of the judiciary will help in better delivery of justice.
Digitalization of the Judiciary before the Pandemic
The process of digitization of the Indian judiciary began with the introduction of E-courts. It was introduced as a part of the National e-Governance project. The conceptualization of E-courts began with the ‘National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology in the Indian Judiciary – 2005′. This plan was prepared by the e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India.
E-courts introduced much-needed transparency and accessibility of justice for Indian citizens. It also made seeking judicial recourse cost-effective. Computerization of the court proceedings and interconnectivity between subordinate courts and higher courts was one of the aims of this project.
The plan was approved in 2010 and the Government had approved phase-1 of the project in 2014. The Supreme Court’s e-Committee approved Phase-II of the project in 2014. Phase-II included a much broader use of ICT for the enhancement of the delivery of justice.
The project is not without its failures though. Apart from the usual issues related to budget, infrastructure, etc. that are part and parcel of any lofty projects in India, the e-Court system failed in some foundational respects as well. One of them being, majority of the citizens not being aware of such a system. This can be attributed to people either not knowing about it or not having the technical know-how to access it.
Another failure is related to the implementation itself. It can be found that many of the subordinate courts still have not made much progress when it comes to the computerization of cases, their status, orders, etc. What’s baffling, however, is that there were High Courts in the country that failed to fully implement Phase-I of the project.
Another two pre-pandemic measures taken for digitalizing the Indian judiciaries were the Supreme Court App and the E-Court Services App. The Supreme Court App provided case details. What was impressive about the application was that it provided a translation of the Court’s judgement into regional languages. The application also provides details of circulars, orders, etc.
The E-court services App that was launched in 2017 was intended to make smoother access to lawyers and litigants to details of the case, both decided and pending, in subordinate courts and High Courts. The application provides a complete history of the cases in the aforementioned courts and even makes it possible to pay court fees online.
Digitalization Amidst the Pandemic
From the above section, it is clear that there have been attempts before the pandemic to digitally empower the Indian judiciary. The use of ICT to make access to judicial proceedings had begun in India much before the pandemic struck. However, as we saw in the days of lockdowns, curfews, etc. when the civilization came to a standstill, the judiciary wasn’t able to make use of any of the pre-pandemic digitization measures because they were an extension of in-court proceedings.
In a country with crores of cases already pending before courts, COVID increased the backlog by an even bigger margin. E-courts were good enough to decrease the congestion that courts faced when things were normal. However, they were limited in what they could offer. The pandemic forced the judiciary to, in a way, reinvent the wheels of justice delivery in India.
A term that became synonymous with the pandemic in the legal circle is E-judiciary. It sounds very straightforward, doesn’t it? What exactly does it mean though? How is it any different from E-courts that India already had? E-judiciary is a step or two ahead of E-courts. It can be also termed as an enhanced version of E-courts with many added features.
E-judiciary is much like how courts work in person. Online proceedings, online interaction between judges, online examinations and cross-examination, and finally, orders and judgements delivered online as well. Maybe it is not just a step or two ahead of E-courts but a whole mile ahead.
Talks of E-judiciary in India did not take birth as a result of the pandemic. What the pandemic did is leapfrog this idea into the mainstream and made it a topic of discussion. At a time of social distancing, quarantines, infected people, etc., E-judiciary made perfect sense. The pertinent question, however, is whether E-judiciary is a temporary measure or something that will stay on.
A term that became common parlance during the pandemic is “virtual hearing”. Virtual hearing is a facet of E-judiciary. Although started as a measure to deal with COVID enforced safety protocols, the potential benefits of virtual hearings are manifold. One of the major issues Indian courts faces is a large number of pending cases. Virtual hearing can up the pace at which cases are disposed of and hence, will reduce the backlog.
Another long-term benefit of a fully functional E-judiciary is a reduction in the plethora of paperwork involved in normal court proceedings. Also, virtual hearings will make it possible to examine and cross-examine those people who cannot be present in the court on the specified date. This will do away with unnecessary delays that have plagued the Indian judiciary since time immemorial.
How can Artificial Intelligence help in Digitalization of the Indian Judiciary?
Artificial Intelligence or AI and machine learning is a hot topic of discussion. It has been in the last few years, and it will continue to be in the coming years a topic that fascinates human beings. The potential of Artificial Intelligence is still known as the scientific community is still scratching its surface.
There are various benefits of AI in different sectors. It has been proven that the use of AI can enhance the functioning of almost everything it is being applied to. Similarly, the justice delivery system is one such area where the use of AI can resolve many issues that it presently faces.
For instance, there are over four crores pending in various courts according to the National Judicial Data Grid. The use of AI can certainly find a solution to this problem of pendency of cases. However, what is to be kept in mind is that the use of AI is an ever-evolving process. The machine learns from the data it is presented with. The more the data, the more it learns. That will in turn make the machine more intelligent. Although it sounds simple in laymen’s terms, this is a complicated procedure that involves very advanced technology and constant updating.
There are examples of using AI in the Indian judiciary. The Supreme Court’s AI-assisted SUPACE (Supreme Court Portal for Assistance in Court Efficiency) and its machine-assisted translation tool SUVAS. These have helped the Court in being more efficient in its duty of delivery of justice.
It is clear that AI has a far more important role to play in the digitalization of the Indian judiciary than it does now. However, how fast will such a change happen and to what extent it will be applicable at all levels is something that will depend on the infrastructure and the intelligence of the machine itself.
What is the Need for Digitalization of Judiciary?
Justice must be accessible, equitable, and efficient. Like everything in life, it will never be ideal. However, what is possible is a level close to idealness. A well-functioning society is dependent on a well-functioning justice system, and for that, it needs to be accessible, equitable, and efficient.
Digitalization offers just that. Indian Judiciary has always been plagued with issues of inefficiency and inaccessibility. Technological advances have made our lives easier. They have made it more efficient. It is through this prism that we must look at the application of ICT in services related to justice delivery.
Digitalization doesn’t just mean converting what has always been on paper to digital files. It’s much more than that. It is a holistic approach that will change everyone involved in justice delivery – from interested parties to judges. The existence of a digital infrastructure that will enable dispute mitigation, containment, and resolution mechanism online will transform the way justice is delivered.
Such a digital infrastructure will make the lives of those who intend to approach the judiciary much easier. Processes that were once cumbersome will become less so. It will enable people to access courts from anywhere promptly. Filing documents digitally, remote access to hearings, etc., will make the judiciary more accessible.
Digitalization will help lawyers and judges to reap great rewards as well.
We have often seen lawyers not being able to present in courts on stipulated dates due to one or the other reason. Sometimes they are genuine and other times, they are not. In either case, they lead to prolonging the process.
For judges, an overhauling digitalization of the judiciary will help them keep a track of cases from the court of original jurisdiction to the court of appellate jurisdiction. Such a seamless handle on data will help in managing case flows and even enable better decision-making.
Digitalization of the judiciary may be looked at as an overarching goal by some. However, what should be understood is that only changes that can disrupt a set order can alter the course of history. Similarly, the digitalization of the judiciary will change the way we look at access to justice. Apart from making justice a staple, the Indian Judiciary will set an example for the rest of the world to follow through.
When the pandemic hit India, few institutions felt the brunt like the judiciary. Although it had the E-courts system and some apps, it was not equipped to face a pandemic of the magnitude COVID turned out to be. Judiciary wasn’t alone in that aspect, but the role played by the judiciary in the society magnifies the impact it felt.
This is where the digitalization of the Indian judiciary becomes important. Any country aspiring to be a global superpower one day needs a well-equipped justice delivery system. However, what the pandemic also showed us is that digitalization of the judiciary will not make any sense without having a society that is equipped with the technical know-how to access the benefit of such a development.
We always preach a balanced approach where the development of society moves in tandem. More often than not, such a balance is not achieved. In the case of the judiciary though, a balanced approach is necessary because of what the judiciary represents. Digitalization of the Indian judiciary must go hand-in-hand with the digitalization of Indian minds and that’s the way ahead.
- Move to complete digitization of Courts
- Digitization of Justice System – Center to explore AI in Judiciary
- AI can help in increasing efficiency of Courts
- The COVID-19 Crisis – the New Challenges Before the Indian Justice and Court Administration System by Jyoti Rattan and Vijay Rattan
- Digitalization of Indian Courts amid Coronavirus Pandemic