At the court of the additional district and sessions judge in Gariaband, Chhattisgarh—one of the newest districts in the country—a computerised information kiosk was installed with much fanfare about three years ago at a cost of Rs two lakh. It was supposed to dispense information to clients and advocates about the status of their cases, dates, etc., at a touch of its smart screen. It still sits in a corner, gathering dust. In the same place, the revenue court of the tehsildar and sub-divisional magistrate has started registration of all those coming there, causing immense inconvenience to farmers and litigants as the area also houses the land records and offices of all patwaris in the tehsil.
The above is not criticism but a statement of fact and how life is changing after Covid-19 in the justice delivery system. The kiosk will have to be reactivated and placed at a more visible, easily accessible place, perhaps at the main gate itself, for people to get information quickly and without the need to enter the court complex. It will probably have to become part of a small info centre where clerks will not just update registry info but also record/register the presence of litigants and advocates. It can even have a video connectivity to the main courtroom from where the judge can dispose of the matter.
This is something all district and mofussil courts will have to adapt to in the changed circumstances. Similarly, the revenue court practice of allowing only a limited number of people inside the court complex is good but will have to be managed better so that the system does not become opaque. The legal fraternity and the entire justice delivery system in the country—both the judicial as well as administrative/revenue stream—is perforce having to adopt new practices and technology and witness changes that were not contemplated even in February 2020. They will have to be ready for the long haul and it is likely that disposal rates will dip and litigants will need to be more patient.
Indian courtrooms are next only to railway stations in terms of the crowds and general chaos. A huge number of litigants, lawyers, paralegals, court officials and security and other staff are permanent fixtures. It’s amazing that the judiciary manages to keep up despite these handicaps. And now Covid has intervened in a way that is set to change the entire gamut of things. Here are some urgent changes that will unfold over the next few months:
- The first and foremost impact will be on the crowds coming to courts. They will have to be reduced drastically through intervention at several levels. This is being done with the disposal of cases through video-conferencing, restricted entry and all courts functioning only on criminal matters limited to bail. This, of course, will change as the lockdown eases. Some courts and lawyers’ bodies have adapted to WhatsApp through which clients are informed in advance about the status of their cases, whether they have to appear in person or even whether the concerned judge is on leave. All these will help reduce the crowds there.
- Meetings in lawyers’ chambers and bar rooms are going to be tough. Lawyers will have to be more careful about the health status of their clients and those who accompany them and devise ways of social distancing. This is likely to be the norm in the foreseeable future.
- Rate of disposal of cases will reduce as judicial officers and clerks learn new technologies which ensure social distancing. Court clerks will have to undergo intensive training for everything—from video-conferencing, soft storage of information and evidence to registry maintenance. Daily hearings will shrink as judges try to manage their dockets while keeping out those cases which do not require the personal presence of clients as in civil cases. This may become problematic as most clients and advocates are geared towards personal presence and arguments. Personal presence can help judges decide a case better. This will now be the presiding officer’s call.
- Covid has also created an opportunity for digitisation and computerisation. This includes manual files and daily court registers which can now be scanned and digitally signed from remote locations. This will decidedly take a lot more time and whether the Covid vaccine comes out or not, courts will need to change in order to reduce daily physical work and control crowding. Admittedly, civil cases will create less problems of storage of files and evidence than criminal ones.
- Though video-conferencing has set in, it does not always have the best desired result. Courts have to be transparent in their functioning and justice has to be seen to be delivered. However, not all lawyers are tech-efficient and now they will need minimum knowledge of the use of laptops, court software, smartphones and WiFi. It will probably become part of law education soon and bar exams may as well include it immediately. Courts will also have to offer minimum infrastructure such as WiFi and video-conference rooms for clients and advocates who don’t have access to it.
- Even the dress code in courts is set to change. There are reports that the Supreme Court may issue an order soon on the dress code during virtual hearings. Judges and lawyers may be asked to appear before it without jackets and gowns as these would be more vulnerable to Covid-19. Already, judges are coming to the Court in black pants, white shirts and judicial bands. This is sure to percolate to the lower judiciary too.
- The major and most beneficial change will be improvement in dispute resolution systems such as arbitration and mediation. These are standardised, legal methods and it is time that their use was not just encouraged but made mandatory.
- Millions of cases of small property disputes, traffic offences, minor business disputes, cheque bounces, etc., can now be referred to dispute resolution, saving court hours. With longer delays expected in actual courts, difficulty in accessing them because of Covid restrictions and the threat to health should also encourage clients to opt for dispute resolution.
- Last, but not the least, is the question of lawyers’ etiquette and earnings. They will have to maintain the same decorum in video-conferencing as in courtrooms and this may need to be emphasised through inclusion in the Advocates Act or Bar Association resolutions. The physical absence of clients from several hearings and increased investment in technology will no doubt impact a lawyer’s earnings. Clients will have to be educated regarding this, both by lawyers’ associations and by lawyers themselves.
By the time the dust settles on Covid-19, the Indian justice delivery system should see and adapt to the new normal. Hopefully it will.
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