We need to fix our judicial system
Source: The Indian Express
Context: The criminal processes that followed the arrest of Aryan Khan, Shah Rukh Khan's son, have recently piqued the public's curiosity in India. When the Bombay High Court ultimately gave Aryan bail, millions of Indians discovered that a court's grant of bail does not automatically allow the accused to immediate release unless the bail order is deposited in a real letterbox outside the Arthur Road prison.
Justice D Y Chandrachud, who chairs the Supreme Court's e-Committee, stated at a public event that the delay in communicating bail orders must be addressed on a war footing. In this regard, the Supreme Court recently took suo moto cognizance of the issue of prisoners not being released after being granted bail and directed the creation of the FASTER (Fast and Secured Transmission of Electronic Records) System, which would transmit e-authenticated copies of interim orders, stay orders, bail orders, and record of proceedings to duty holders.
The court was completely silent on the fact that the Phase II document for the e-courts project, published in 2014, announced an ambitious but unfulfilled plan to allow information transmission between key institutions in the criminal justice system.
In this case, the "bail-jail" connectivity problem is merely a symptom of a much deeper problem with the structure, management, and accountability of the e-Committee, which is in charge of steering the e-courts project.
Concerns Regarding the e-Courts Project:
The government has approved budgets of Rs 935 crore and Rs 1,670 crore for Phases I and II of the project, respectively, and the e-Committee, chaired by a Supreme Court judge, will decide how to spend them. Despite this, there is little to show for all of this money.
Many courts do have computers and it is easier to get case information for ordinary citizens but why is it that basic functionality, like electronic transmission of orders between the courts and the prisons, escaped the attention of the e-Committee, despite being mentioned in its own vision documents.
This could be due to the fact that the e-Committee is not accountable to anyone. Despite the substantial expenditure of public funds, neither the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) nor the Lok Sabha's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) have reviewed its handling of the e-courts project.
After much pressure from the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice, the Department of Justice (DoJ), which works under the Ministry of Law and Justice, commissioned two timid, if not limited, evaluations of the project.
A project of this magnitude should, at the very least, be subject to public scrutiny or a performance audit. After all, these are the fundamentals of public accountability and project management.
Issues Regarding the Use of Technology in the Judiciary:
Increase in the Cost: e-Courts will also prove to be cost-intensive as setting up state-of-the-art e-courts will require the deployment of new-age technology.
Hacking and cybersecurity: On top of technology, cyber-security will be a huge concern too. The government has initiated remedial steps to address this problem and formulated the Cyber Security Strategy but it is more on the side of prescribed guidelines alone. The practical and actual implementation of the same remains to be seen.
Infrastructure: Challenges can erupt due to insufficient infrastructure and the non-availability of electricity and internet connectivity in most of the Talukas/villages.
Electricity connection is a must along with internet connectivity and computers to ensure justice reaches every section equally.
Maintaining e-courts record:
The paralegal staff is not well equipped or trained to handle documents or record evidence effectively and make it readily available to the litigant, the council, and the court.
Other issues could include the litigant's lack of trust in the process as a result of the lack of proximity.
Address Uneven Digital Access: While mobile phones are widely owned and used, Internet access is still restricted to urban users.
Infrastructure Deficit: Open court is a cardinal principle in the delivery of justice. The question of public access cannot be pushed to the sidelines but must be a central consideration.
The shortage of technical infrastructure has too often meant that access to online hearings is curtailed.
Filling Up Vacancies: Just as chatbots cannot replace doctors, no amount of technology, no matter how advanced, can replace judges, of which there is a significant shortage.
According to the India Justice Report 2020, vacancies in the High Court are 38 percent (2018-19) and 22 percent in lower courts for the same period.
As of August 2021, more than four out of every ten High Court judgeships were vacant.
Accountability of Judges:
The solution is to hold judges accountable for running administratively complex projects (such as e-courts) for which they are untrained and lack the necessary skills.
One aspect that must be prioritised is the implementation of a strong security system that allows appropriate parties secure access to case information. The security of the e-courts infrastructure and system is critical.
A user-friendly e-courts mechanism that is simple and easily accessible to the general public will also encourage litigants to use such facilities in India.
It could be an opportune time to make long-term changes that will transform India's creaking justice delivery system.
However, over-reliance on technology is not a cure-all for all of the ills plaguing the courts and, if done carelessly, can be counterproductive.