The Legal System Has To Re-engineer Itself, Technologically: Justice S Ravindra Bhat

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The e-court system has its roots in a 2005 Supreme Court e-committee initiative, the “National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary – 2005”. The goals of the project are: “to  provide efficient and time-bound citizen centric service delivery, to develop, install and implement decision support systems in courts, to automate the processes to provide transparency of information access to its stakeholders” and “to enhance judicial productivity both qualitatively and quantitatively, to make the justice delivery system affordable, accessible, cost effective and transparent.”

How does this work in practice? JUSTICE S RAVINDRA BHAT who headed the country’s first High Court level e-court, shares his experience with NAYANTARA ROY. Excerpts:  

The e-courts project is supposed to “enhance judicial productivity”, and to “make the justice delivery system affordable, accessible, cost-effective and transparent”. What has been your experience in the Delhi High Court?

The e-court started operations on 15th December 2009; the court which I presided over was the first paperless court in any High Court in the country. The legal profession is reluctant in accepting technology; lawyers have not been enthusiastic to adapt to change! But they have to deal with masses of papers and documents. And on the original side, where suits and original causes are to be tried, the records are by far, more voluminous than in other types of cases. It is in the original side that the first paperless court started operations in our court.

The work of a judge on the original side is cut out—she or he has to manage the files assigned. The size of the files can be daunting. For example, of the 10,000 suits pending in December, 2009 in the Delhi High Court, 2000 were assigned to my court. So the question was, how to start the process. They started by first digitizing the cases listed each succeeding day, week, month, and so on, on a month-to-month basis.

Can you explain how an e-court functions, especially how the judges use digital or electronic files and what difference it made in your functioning?

In the e-courts, judges access the case files on the monitors in front of them on the dais. These monitors are CPUs and conveniently enable viewing of several documents, and in at least two windows; the judges use styluses to make notes on the digital case files. These annotations and notes are saved and tagged with the judge’s copy of the electronic case file for later reference without changing the original digital case files.

Judge’s digital case note from a disposed-of case
Judge’s digital case note from a disposed-of case

A useful feature is the program “Windows onenote”. It allows you to copy paste documents, even in image format. As documents from the older files are mostly scanned, this feature has made it easier to access them. We use a stylus for highlighting text, and also take down notes electronically, so the note becomes compact, making it easier to write a judgment based on them. I usually “key in” or type most of the important judgments, particularly the lengthier ones, so the process is simplified.

Digitization of case files involves the storing, keeping of files and documents in appropriate folders and archiving it conveniently for their easy and speedy retrieval. A typical suit file contains an orders folder (which has all the orders arranged date-wise, passed in the case), a pleadings folder (containing all the pleadings—petition or suit or appeal, reply to those pleadings and so on) and documents folders, divided into the plaintiff or appellants’ and defendant or respondents’ folders. To make it less cumbersome, a “dustbin folder” was created for disposed of applications such as the many interlocutory applications that may have come up in the course of the suit or appeal but were disposed of and are no longer relevant to the decision of the main dispute in the suit or appeal. A special software is used to bundle these folders files. All other software was indigenously adapted by National Informatics Centre (NIC) in consultation with the High Court.

Could you describe some of your experiences in the e-court?

The first judgment I wrote in the paperless court was in a case with a trunk load of documents containing over 1,500 pages! The case had been pending for about four years. To speed up hearings and shorten time, lawyers were asked to prepare “convenience compilations” of the most relevant documents. Even these went into two to three volumes. At that nascent stage of the project we couldn’t “bookmark” on the computer (i.e. the electronic facility to reach the page one wanted, say, for example, “annexure 4” of a file or pleading). Now bookmarks are routinely used, which shortens the time to reach the concerned part or document in the file. Anyhow, using the e-files, I was able to reach the documents faster than the lawyers. The lawyers had to go through hard copy volumes to find the appropriate document, get to the relevant page and so on. But for me, it was much easier. I could open the document in different windows and access them simultaneously. I was able to conclude that hearing in one hour and was able to deliver the judgment in 15 days time.

My next assignment was the criminal roster. We were hearing appeals relating to serious offences like murder, kidnapping, homicide, and so on. Every such appeal file can contain between 600/ 700 pages up to about 4,000 pages.

The trial court record is digitized for easy access and reference. Surprisingly, many lawyers would come to the court with a mental block, remarking that they couldn’t use the digital file or electronic records as they were too old to learn or had difficulties in understanding how to use laptops or other computer devices. I would tell them that if you have access to the trial court records your arguments will immediately improve. Even older lawyers came back saying, “I’ve learned”. People were happy that they were able to get the record and this actually hastened the process of the hearing.

Two windows open simultaneously on the screen which can be seen by the judge in the court room. Both show different sections of the same case file
Two windows open simultaneously on the screen which can be seen by the judge in the court room. Both show different sections of the same case file

Which of the courts in the Delhi High Court are e-courts?

Currently, there are only three jurisdictions which are entirely digital. One is tax, which I’m heading. Arbitration and Company Law are the other two. There are no paper files at all, so there is no need to scan documents. The lawyer for the litigants files a CD. An electronic folder is created from its contents. This is properly bundled, using standard software and then it becomes part of the system which is taken up by the court. Each day’s cause-list and case files are copied on to a pen-drive, which the judge takes home and reads, prepares notes, etc. No paper or hard copy files are needed. Apart from the three complete digital or paperless courts, nine other judges preside over paperless courts. In all, 14 judges function in e-courts in Delhi.

You had mentioned a criminal case earlier. Are criminal matters not dealt with electronically?

It is not compulsory in criminal matters. But I noticed that recording of evidence was being done in the computer, so we asked that all judgments be sent on the computer. This saves money for the litigant and importantly, saves paper. It saves on a lot of file movement, which is inevitable when we deal with hard copy and paper files. A bench may typically have 40 cases a day. That would mean about 80 sorties of files moving back and forth between the record room and the court for just one court room. Multiply this with 36 and you could have 2,880 sorties a day in the Delhi High Court. With all this movement, papers could get misplaced.

When did the digitization process begin?

The digitization process in the Delhi High Court started about 10-11 years ago, with digitization of disposed cases. The digitization of disposed-of files is an ongoing process—after a designated time period, depending on the type of case, the original paper record is scanned and computerized and hard copies are destroyed. This process of digitization of old records has freed up about 35,000 sq ft of space in the record rooms. The tangible value of the cost of such space in central Delhi can be used for other needed expenditure. As many as 5.5 lakh files have been digitized and weeded out, which translates to over 13.80 crore pages. Now, the entire basement in one block of the High Court and two floors of another block have been freed up.

Making notings using a stylus
Making notings using a stylus

Delhi no longer prints the daily cause-list. It is electronically displayed on the website. Annually, Rs 85 lakh was spent on printing the cause-list, so there is now a monetary saving, as well as saving of paper. The new electronic cause-list is dynamic. Earlier, one had to read through the entire set of printed sheets to find the cases you were looking for. Now, you can zero in on those cases through the search function. Also, if anyone—lawyer or litigant—has to locate specific cases listed for a particular day, they can take a print-out of the court and judges dealing with their cases, they don’t need to print out the whole list.

Recently there was news about a Kerala court where the court-to-prison video conferencing facility was stopped because the government had not paid the company that had set up the facility and was running it. Have you experienced anything like this?

No, there has been no such problem in Delhi. The government has always been very cooperative in these things. Judges have better access to technology. Lower court judges have laptops and options of other electronic devices. We have desk tops and access to data bases such as Manupatra, LexisNexis and Westlaw.  Besides the High Court, 12 e-courts function from 11 district court complexes, under the Supreme Court constituted e-committee project—one in each district and two in the New Delhi court.

Case data relating to all districts is regularly updated on to the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG).

How far do you see modern technology being used in the justice system? Are virtual courtrooms a possibility?

Yes. We have a new block coming up—C Block—which has 15 state-of-the-art courtrooms. These are significantly different conceptually. There is as much natural light as possible. Literally there is transparency! The walls are glass all around. The judge is not behind a closed door, it’s literally an “open court”! There is an option of blinds that can be drawn in case of distraction or other problems. We hope this will be sparingly resorted to.

These courtrooms are enabled for video conferencing. We visualize that in the future litigants can depose and lawyers can argue from elsewhere.

Do you have a target for yourself?

To achieve at least one judgment per day. For that, you require at least two-three hours’ study at home each day; the process requires research, formulating the propositions and developing them.

What do you see for the future?

The legal system as a whole has to adapt and re-engineer itself, technologically, to face challenges of the times. India has complex problems and technology is not a magic wand which would sweep away arrears in a short time. However, information technology provides powerful tools in promoting efficiency in the entire process chain.

Even if a road map is prepared and implemented in stages within specific time frames, the rewards can be significant. One should be able to see video conferencing of arguments where the judge may be in one place and the opposing lawyers in another place; or conversely, one lawyer may be elsewhere and the judge and another lawyer in a court room. Barriers of time and place may become irrelevant; documents and file movement can be virtual; files can be retrieved from secure digital archives. These are not visions for a future generation, but something achievable within the next decade or so, if there is flexibility in approach by all concerned: policymakers, lawyers, judges, and court administrators, etc.

Lead picture: Justice S Ravindra Bhat. Photo: Bhavana Gaur