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Making virtual courts inclusive by heeding needs of the physically challenged

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In order to ensure that virtual courts are friendly to physically challenged lawyers and litigants, Justice DY Chandrachud, chairman of the Supreme Court’s e-Committee, has proffered suggestions to High Courts.

By Shaheen Parween

With no permanent solution in sight to the pandemic, physical hearings in courts might be a long time coming. This has warranted efforts to ensure that virtual courts are friendly to physically challenged lawyers and litigants.

Taking the matter into consideration, Supreme Court judge Justice DY Chandrachud, in a letter to the chief justices of all High Courts, has put forth suggestions stressing the urgent need to have accessible infrastructure including digital eco­systems to enable physically challenged lawyers and litigants to participate in the legal profession on an equal footing.

Justice Chandrachud, who also heads the Supreme Court’s e-Committee, stressed the importance of having accessible infrastructure and said: “The creation of accessible infrastructure, including digital infrastructure, and an appropriate support system in the judiciary for lawyers and litigants with disabilities is imperative in order to create a level playing field. This obligation is a natural corollary of the right to equality guaranteed to lawyers and litigants with disabilities under Article 14 of the Constitution of India and the right to practise a profession of one’s choice under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India.”

The judge asked High Courts and district courts to reconfigure existing filing practices, taking into account the needs of physically disabled lawyers. In this respect, it has been suggested that the onus to make filings accessible cannot be placed on disabled lawyers since “this would be much like serving a file to an able bodied lawyer in a foreign language and placing the onus on them to translate it into English”.

Instead, the letter suggested that the system be institutionalised to embed accessibility for all time to come. “Second, instead of requiring a disabled lawyer to seek case-by-case intervention, or having a separate system just for them, we have to ensure that existing filing practices are reconfigured to take account of their needs,” the letter read.

It further referred to the practice adopted by the apex court of filing pleadings in PDF format. “The pleadings made in Microsoft Word can easily be saved as PDF files. The current practice of printing and scanning documents is a futile and time consuming process that does not serve any purpose. I am very happy to report that my court has adopted the above practice, making filings of written submissions 100 percent accessible to the blind. We have to expand this to cover all kinds of filings, in all courts,” Justice Chandrachud’s letter read.

With respect to filing of written submissions, he stated: “Whenever submissions are directed to be filed by the court in any proceedings, advocates and parties in person are requested to email a soft copy in a PDF form on or before the stipulated date to the following: Email ID: xxxxxxxx@gmail.com The soft copies which are emailed should not be scanned copies of printed submissions. No other documents other than written submissions should be filed in this email.”

The letter further states that if there are hard copy annexures that need to be made part of the paper-book, these can be scanned. They must then be saved as a PDF file, but only in Optical Character Recognition based PDF format.

In order to ensure that lawyers do not feel compelled to print and then scan paper-books, because of the signature requirement, Justice Chandrachud has devised a practice of using digital signatures or requiring signatures only on the last page of paper-books. The letter further suggested that care must be taken to ensure that stamps and watermarks are not placed on the page in such a way as would hamper smooth access. This has been suggested in order to avoid judgments/orders being inaccessible due to the placement of watermarks on each page.

Earlier, in May 2020, at a webinar organised by students of NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, Justice Chandrachud said that the judiciary must grab this opportunity of virtual hearing in order to bring change. He had said that the Supreme Court’s e-committee was working at developing a technology that would make justice delivery more inclusive, not just for litigants, but lawyers too.

He said: “I believe that we must have, in due course, a judge of the Supreme Court who will be visually impaired. And certainly, judges in the High Court and lawyers should lead lives of dignity. There is no exception to the rules of human dignity that excludes the visually impaired.”

Justice Chandrachud also mentioned that work was underway to make the Supreme Court’s e-filing project disabled-friendly. “I am personally working on this and have discussed it with high courts. We would like to see lawyers from all backgrounds use the system in the most efficient manner. For this, a collaborative approach between judiciary and bar associations needs to be undertaken,” he said.

He was not in favour of virtual court hearings and said: “I don’t think virtual courts are going to replace open court hearing. I don’t think any judge or expert in technology is going to tell that. I want to disabuse the minds of people who think that virtual courts are some sort of panacea or formula which is a substitute for open court hearing.” However, keeping in mind the health of the lawyers, litigants, all stakeholders, media personnel, students and clerks, he said that the judiciary was compelled to have video-conference hearings.

Mentioning the uncertainty of the pandemic, Justice Chandrachud said he perceived a future where there was a healthy mix of hearings in open and virtual courts. Moreover, he stressed on virtual court hearings in areas they were suited to. However, he said that it was necessary to have open court hearings, which really constitute the spine of the system.

Also ReadE-Sewa Kendras: Making justice accessible

While concluding the letter, Justice Chandrachud urged lower and subordinate courts:

“I am sure that with your personal intervention, persons with disabilities will be able to find an accessible court environment. I earnestly request you to ensure that steps are taken in that direction both by the High Court and by the district judiciary.”

That would give a fillip to the physically challenged.

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