By Sanjay Raman Sinha
Recently Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju informed the Rajya Sabha that the proposal for setting up the National Judicial Infrastructure Authority of India (NJIAI) has been received from the Chief Justice of India (CJI), NV Ramana, and the proposal has been sent to states and union territories for their response. The NJIAI is meant to upgrade and refurbish the judicial infrastructure of courts. Rijiju further said that the primary responsibility of developing infrastructure for the judiciary would lie with the state governments but the command of the NJIAI will be with the CJI.
Poor court infrastructure has been the bane of the country’s judiciary. One of the fundamental reasons for the lack of infrastructure in lower courts has been the paucity of funds or their improper utilization, a fact repeatedly emphasized by the CJI.
Justice Vijender Jain, former chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, said:
“In Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand, I have first-hand experience. Here many courts are run in tin sheds. The Motor Vehicle Claims Tribunals Court is headed by a district judge and he doesn’t have a cabin of his own. Hardly 10% of such tribunals have proper courtrooms. This is the state of affairs. In many places, a room is hired in residential complexes or in shopping malls for the district judge’s courtroom. Now, if such is the case, how can we even speak of digitization? It is not only a matter of increasing the judges’ strength. A corresponding extension of facilities should also happen. Though the district courts come under the Supreme Court, the facilities are in the state government’s domain. The state governments should fulfil their responsibilities in this regard.”
To upgrade the virtual infrastructure, the E-Courts Project was started in 2004. Currently, the second phase is ongoing. This is in sync with the physical infrastructure upgradation plans. Now with the Supreme Court moving on to the physical mode of hearing again from April 4, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) is all set to activate its members for physical hearings. This will once again bring back the focus on the existing physical and virtual infrastructures and its adaptability to the demands of time.
Pradeep Rai, vice-president, SCBA, looks positively at the NJIAI proposal of the CJI, and has high hopes for the improvement of ground conditions of the courts. He said:
“The way in which the proposal for NJIAI was put forward by the CJI and the promptness with which it was taken up by the centre shows the importance of the issue. Today, the court infrastructure is ramshackle. In many places, there is lack of even tables and chairs. Hence, we congratulate the CJI for his initiative. That the government has accepted the proposal is also a good portent and we hope to see positive results in the future.”
While inaugurating the annexe building of the Aurangabad Bench of the Bombay High Court on October 23, 2021, the CJI had underlined the need for good basic infrastructure of courts. He had said: “Good judicial infrastructure for courts in India has always been an afterthought. It is because of this mindset that courts still operate from dilapidated structures making it difficult to effectively perform their functions.” The Supreme Court-constituted National Court Management System (NCMS) holds that there is a one-to-one relationship between physical infrastructure, personnel infrastructure, digital infrastructure, and pendency. Better infrastructure leads to better efficiency, reduced pendency and increased access to justice.
Reshma Shekhar, senior resident fellow, VIDHI, has been deeply involved with issues related to judicial infrastructure. She explained the need for NJIAI: “There was no dedicated body to look at the court infrastructure, hence the need for NJIAI. The state of court infrastructure is quite run-down as brought out by a study done by VIDHI in 2019. The state of infrastructure is really decrepit at the state and district levels. This is the first point of interface of the litigants with the judiciary. The task is onerous but it depends on how it is taken forward from here. Also with respect to composition of the NJIAI, a lack of domain experts is felt. We have representatives from the judiciary, district administration, PWD, finance department and law department. But what is lacking is the presence of domain experts who can really make a difference in terms of design and accessibility to judicial systems.”
The existence of rudimentary physical infrastructure weighs heavily on the judicial personnel. There is lack of physical infrastructure in the judiciary. Data say that courtrooms, residential units for judicial officers, washrooms and libraries are in short supply. This has negatively impacted the judicial workforce as well. The district courts are the worst hit.
Justice Nirmaljit Kaur, former judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, has an extensive experience in court operations. She said:
“Personally, I have always been in the High Courts. High Courts are reasonably good. I was also posted in district courts of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan. In comparison, Punjab and Haryana has come a long way, and the infrastructure is decent with respect to the buildings and courtrooms. But where computerisation is concerned, which is the need of the hour, much is still to be done. In district courts, the situation is deplorable. I remember one of my nieces, who was a judicial officer in Patiala, saying that the washrooms were so dirty that she used to wait till one o’clock in the afternoon, and then during recesses, cross the road to go to a cinema hall to use the washroom. Now the situation is quite better. But in Rajasthan, the conditions are still pathetic. In summers, there is no air conditioning. If conditions are such, how can it be expected from judicial officers to give their best?”
The court infrastructure data paints a dismal picture. As much as 26% of the court complexes do not have separate ladies toilets and 16% do not have gents toilets. Only 32% of the courtrooms have separate record rooms and only 51% of the court complexes have a library. Only 27% of the courtrooms have a computer placed on the judge’s dais with video-conferencing facility.
Rai stressed this fact. He said: “When there are inadequate courtrooms, when there is lack of libraries and seating facilities for advocates then it negatively impacts the justice delivery system. Sometimes there is no typist available with the judge, sometimes proper research is not provided to the judges. A host of such problems plague the system. If and when we can solve the problems then only justice delivery will be smooth and effective.”
If we look at the current fund-sharing pattern of central funding, for eight Northeastern and three Himalayan states, the centre provides 60% of the funds, and 40% is the contribution of the states. Union Territories get 100% funding but due to the paucity of funds, the centre has cut central funding by 70%. The states have also cut their contribution by 30%. Not surprisingly, the paucity of funds has compelled the CJI to insist on proper utilization of money.
Justice Jain recounted his own experience with fund management. He said:
“In the constitutional scheme of things and the power which has been vested on the High Courts, if a committed chief justice takes charge and determines that infrastructure needs to be upgraded, vacancies need to be filled and first class training needs to be imparted to judicial officers, then he can certainly do it. I never felt a fund crunch. I had charge of Punjab and Haryana courts. To improve the infrastructure of courts, I formed committees and delegated responsibilities to them. In the process, I created upgraded infrastructure for 19 district courts. Today, the courts of Punjab and Haryana are by far one of the best in terms of infrastructure. At one time, I had received a mere Rs 3 crore from the state government. But I placed my demand forcefully and Rs 13 crore was sanctioned overnight. Talking about NJIAI, there may be constitutional problems when dealing with pan-India issues of the judiciary. A decentralized committee based approach may well be the answer.’’
The proposed NJIAI could work as a central agency with each state having its own State Judicial Infrastructure Authority, much like the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) model.
Since the Covid-19 situation, a rudimentary virtual infrastructure has been developed, but what is more important is the fact that it should integrate well with the physical infrastructure and the process shouldn’t get duplicated at any point.
Shekhar stressed on this point. She said:
“Given the fact that we are also digitizing the judiciary, it is important to integrate the processes and make them more efficient. The shortcomings of physical infrastructure can be overcome by the judicious use of digital technology. There is also the issue of how to implement digital technology, all the while keeping in mind the problem of digital divide. At the ground level, since the last two years was of the pandemic, the e-committee had made a lot of effort to initiate digital upgrade. E-filing initiatives have been taken all over the country. There are e-Seva Kendras. Three High Courts have started live streaming of proceedings. The e-committee has come out with live streaming and video-conferencing norms. When we say digital divide, it is not only the lack of hardware like computers, mobile sets, etc, but also internet facilities and bandwidth. Judges don’t have computers on their desks.”
The lack of virtual infrastructure is more pronounced at the lower rungs of the judiciary and it hits judicial processes most strongly. Justice Kaur said: “About virtual infrastructure, the less said the better. Districts are struggling with digital infrastructure. In Punjab courts, there is a regular breakdown of the internet. It has not been 100% digitized and it can prove difficult if one has to go for full online courts.”
Despite all odds and oppositions, the ball seems to be rolling now for the NJIAI. Justice Ramana is seen as the prime mover for this cause. Rai, speaking on the behalf of the SCBA, thanked the CJI for his initiative. He said: “The Supreme Court bar has welcomed the initiative of the CJI in this regard. The CJI has a positive mindset. He always tries to improve things. The issue is not limited to the Supreme Court. It encompasses all the High Courts and the district courts as well. The CJI has been working to improve facilities and it will bear results. We at the SCBA thank him for this.” With the government sending the NJIAI proposal to the states for response, the first of the many difficult steps has been taken. It also shows the resolve of the centre to work together with the judiciary to set the house in order and marks a collaborative approach of the two wings of democracy. This augurs well for the country as well.