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“E-COURTS” AS AN ALTERNATE LITIGATION PRACTICE 

By Syed Naqvi, Supreme Court Advocate

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The lockdown enforced in India w.e.f. March 25, 2020, to contain the spread of Corona Virus, as one of the recommended protocol for controlling the epidemic diseases, has led to the Courts in India lay down new rules for the administration of Justice. Conventional filing of the cases by the advocates/litigants by presenting printed Petitions on paper have been substituted by “e-filing”. Judges are no longer sitting in Courts to hear advocates/litigants but are conducting hearings of cases from their homes through the electronic medium of “video-conferencing”.

Adversity created by the Corona Epidemic has been turned into an opportunity by the administrators of justice, by use and adoption of technology, for dispensing justice in cases requiring urgent hearing.

Like all adversities, this epidemic facing human beings across the world, will also come to an end, hopefully, very soon.

The establishment of “e-court” in these times are confined at the moment to hearing urgent cases, as defined by the new rules of “e-court”, through “e-circulars” and “e-orders”.

A review, as and when conducted for determining the success and the glitches of “e-courts” as introduced in these compelling times, may certainly lead to a call for making “e-courts” a permanent system of administration of justice, in view of its cost effectiveness and elimination of travel to the courts.

This article will address the limited issue of establishing “e-courts” as an additional forum for the administration of justice in India.

The use of technology in the administration of justice in India was introduced sometime in early 1990s, with the introduction of desk top computers in the administrative side of the courts. Advocates were also presenting their Petitions typed on the computer word processors by replacing their manual/electronic typewriters. Computer programs were developed by the National Informatics Corporation of India for electronically registering the Petitions filed by the advocates/litigants. Thereafter, computers have been rapidly used by the administrative side of the courts. Computer programs were also developed and utilised for tracking the cases by Court administrators as well as advocates. Case law research by the advocates transformed from reading the cases reported on paper reports to researching and reading on personal computers and later on, on laptops and tablets.

Today, the entire court administration is run by the court administrators electronically, save and except verification of the Petitions, which is done by the trained Court officers and hearing of the cases by the Judges.

There have been attempts in recent times to dispense with the use of paper Petitions by the Courts and Advocates, but with limited success.  Even few “e-court” hearings we have seen in the last few days showed us that both the advocates as well as the judges are using paper Petitions.

“E-Courts” are going to change the manner in which cases are heard in Courts. Thus, one of the last areas where technology was yet to make its inroads, has now been captured.

In the time of the present epidemic, Courts have prescribed hearing of the cases only through “video-conferencing”. As and when the Courts lay down further and more detailed rules for the establishment and functioning of the “e-courts”, the terminology would move from calling the e-hearing as hearing through “video-conferencing” to perhaps just “e-hearing”, in order to distinguish from the conventional conduct of the Court hearings.

Traditionally, the Administration of justice required hearing the cases and complaints of the litigants through their legal representatives/advocates by the Judges in person in open Courts. Over a period of time, better infrastructure were developed for housing the Courts and the advocates. The Court administration framed rules prescribed timing for the hearing of the cases, prescribed dress for the Judges and advocates and staff, prescribed rules for the distribution of Cases to the Judges for hearing, by forming benches, setting up libraries for the Judges and advocates, allocated Chambers for the Judges and advocates to work and prepare Cases. Thus, over a period of time, a unique ecosystem was developed and established for practice of law by the advocates and dispensing of the justice by the Judges. Today, everyone concerned or connected with the administration of justice considers this ecosystem as a default.

With the introduction of “e-courts”, this default ecosystem may change. Change, it is said, is a constant. Thus, the very idea and system of Court administration may change. Judges may no longer sit in the Courts to hear cases. Advocates may not longer come to the Courts to argue cases. Advocates/litigants may no longer come to the Courts to file cases. Court libraries may not have advocates reading books. Libraries may well become “e-libraries”, occupying just about a room to house super computers and operators. Canteens may not have people meeting and chatting over a cup of tea/coffee. Advocates may not meet in Courts to socialise professionally. Human touch of meeting of seeing each other, a social norm one has been used to, may disappear. Justice delivery system may be confined to the distant Judges Chambers and Lawyers Chambers.

Is this scenario going to replace the present ecosystem or should we think and consider graduating to the new “e-courts” ecosystem as an alternate justice delivery system?

Post lifting of the lockdown, the Court administrators may consider establishing a permanent bench of Judges in every Courts, which may be called as “e-bench”, which may “sit” (hold its hearings) once a week, may be on a Saturday, to hear and decide cases of those advocates and litigants who opt for “e-hearing” of their cases. For the rest of the cases, let the conventional ecosystem of addressing the Courts in Court Halls by advocates continue, but with optimum use and utilisation of the best of the technology.

Let us continue to hear the echo of advocates in Courts saying “milord”. Let us continue to hear the echo of the Judges in the Courts, often declaring at the end of hearing the case is “Dismissed” !!

Let technology be an enabler of justice delivery system and not a tool for social distancing of human beings from each other – for that may be against the very purpose of our creation.

 

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