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Virtual Courts: Digital Justice

Virtual Courts: Digital Justice
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Above: The virtual court was recently launched at the Tis Hazari Court in Delhi/Photo: Anil Shakya

Delhi’s first e-court that opened recently allows people to pay traffic challans online and will soon be widened to include cases under the Negotiable Instruments Act and claims related to motor accidents

By Rajbir Deswal  

“There are four compelling reasons why courts should explore the emerging digital possibilities. The system is costly for its users; it’s usually too time consuming and disputes take a long time to resolve; it’s largely unintelligible; and it also seems out of step in Internet society, citizens have a growing expectation that services will be delivered digitally.”

Even as Professor Richard Susskind, IT adviser to the UK Lord Chief Justice, uttered these words, news has come out of Delhi’s Tis Hazari Court of the first ever virtual court—enabling stakeholders an easy and affordable vehicle of adjudication. To begin with, the new web portal of the virtual court relates to traffic violations. The endeavour is being touted as “giving power back to the people”. The challaning procedure of ensuring discipline on roads, ends up making a violator, or an acc­used, accountable and responsible to deposit a fee, or fine, through a new electronic process put in place through the Internet. It could well be a road map to having virtual courts in the country.

The effort is laudable and can be replicated in other parts of India if one goes by the trends found in the world. Virtual courts do not exist in physical form nor do they enjoin upon the defendants and petitioners to be physically present at their premises. This is a technology-based system where the internet is heavily relied upon for its smooth functioning.

The Delhi court found that most traffic violators, and accused persons, are either auto-rickshaw or taxi drivers who travel long distances to reach courts and then wait endlessly for the proceedings.

Generally, the most generic e-court reference is to a courtroom with technology that accommodates trial and other proceedings without paper records, whether filing, issuing of judgments, electronic disclosure or presentation of evidence.

Without jeopardising effective and transparent administration of justice, and sans any tangible form, a virtual court is a conceptual idea of a judicial forum, with online access and video conferencing and teleconferencing facilities. The e-courtroom is a storehouse of enormous data and information relating to various aspects of trial, argument and evidence. The entire data is processed in such a way that the judge will have set up his way of interpretation and application of law to the evidence presented before him. He involves various theories in the process and finally gives his verdict online.

E-courtrooms have been introduced recently in Arizona, USA, where the infrastructure consists of microphones, flat-screen monitors for the court and jurors, two-way video conferencing facility to allow for court appearance from locations other than in the court itself, evidence display systems with touch screens that allow exhibits to be highlighted and annotated, and full audio and digital recording of the proceedings. This vastly reduces the
in-person, human interaction. At some places, there is a direct link and dedicated passage to the forensic science laboratories.

A sizable number of people all over the world carry out their lives online, hence it is easier to adapt to technology and make it instrumental in the administration of justice besides availing of a myriad other services. It may be risky to introduce virtual courts to criminal law—since the way the witnesses and accused look and behave is very crucial—but for civil disputes’ resolution, it can prove to be a boon. Parties can reach a settlement online without coming face to face; if that fails they can approach the judge online, who again will decide the case online using appropriate software.

Another category of cases which can find better, faster and appropriate solution to litigants’ grievances is the one emanating out of “beneficial legislation”—the motor accident claims, for example, and other such matters that involve compensations and awards.

The Delhi court’s initiative is relevant not just for traffic violations. With some modifications in the evaluation of evidence, the web portal can be made suitable for petty crimes too. Day in and day out, the police are engaged in what they call “bad livelihood cases” where one or more of the parties live in slums in miserable conditions. These offences may include small time gambling, bootlegging, pick pocketing, etc, for which the police has to make formal arrests, file a charge sheet, ensure compliance with summons, produce witnesses and be present in the court. Many of these offences are adjudicated with imposition of fines. As in traffic violation cases, it may not be difficult to open up such e-windows for these matters.

Issues of admission of guilt and denial are of paramount importance here. Approaching a virtual court, for example, in a traffic violation case, will pre-suppose the accused person’s guilt. He, in a way, pleads guilty and offers to pay the fine. It is no different in the matter of plea-bargains where one admits one’s guilt in lieu of either being treated with leniency for a bigger offence, or for monetary settlement of case that are compoundable in nature.

E-filing of petitions is already in vogue in many of the courts. But this process does not involve leading evidence and appreciation of the same. There are innumerable services being rendered these days online and many innovative departments in the government sector, as also in the private sector, look up to using the internet and related technologies.

The trend of having e-courts is emerging the world over. Australia came up with the “Remote witness testimony” which largely involved video conferencing in far-flung areas of aboriginals. USA, too, has been extensively using information technology in its judicial system. In the United Kingdom, CASEMAN, a part of the Local County Court Management System, does a myriad tasks. It (1) creates initial court records for registration of cases, (2) issues summons and monitors the summons, (3) stores electronic copies of evidence, (4) generates causelist, (5) updates records, (6) maintains court diary, (7)
automatically generates other relevant documents and records. Australian “cyber courts” are successful in cutting delays considerably. Courts in Singapore go beyond the use of computers and have the best in video-conferencing facilities from jails and courts. While the world over, e-courts were established on an ad-hoc basis, Singapore has the unique distinction of having successfully installed their litigation management and support technology in the first go.

However, due to the costs of investing in such systems being prohibitive for courts with modest budgets, many have not been able to embrace e-court technologies. Thus case and court information processing systems in these still remain dependent on paper records.

The province of British Columbia, in Canada, recently launched its first ever online civil tribunal, aimed at allowing citizens to resolve their small-value property and land disputes, for cases involving less than $25,000. The winner of the UN Public Service Award 2012, Turkey has a National Electronic Service across all its judicial functions. The US Supreme Court has plans to introduce full electronic filing of different motions and applications, with free public access to these on their website.

With India’s 15,000 courts and 2,500 court complexes, it may be a real challenge to set up virtual courts, yet these should be welcomed given the country’s head start in the IT sector and our large pool of professionals. It is a different matter that training can turn out to be a problem for lawyers and judges who may be stretched for time to learn new skills.

Virtual courts, if introduced in a big way, will cut much police work and spare a large number of them for other duties. On an average, one in every five policemen is generally out on duty for court-related matters—serving of summons, et al. Add to this their duty to produce accused persons and witnesses in various courts and attendance at courts as a prosecuting agent. If this can be done through e-mail, messaging, fax, linking with Aadhaar, and any other dedicated vehicle of e-trials in virtual courts, much of the time of the police will be saved.

However, there is a counterview that video-conferencing threatens the defendants’ rights and undermines trust in the justice system—a kind of “Trial by Skype”. Defendants in virtual court hearings find it difficult to hold confidential discussions with their lawyers, become disconnected from remote proceedings and may be disadvantaged during sentencing.

Experts, however, opine that a sound judicial management system will allay the fears as pointed out by several judicial commissions that looked into matters of delays, arrears and backlogs. Improving case management, file management and docket management, with the use of computers and internet will reduce delays. They can also be helpful in building a legal information database, an online query system to elicit information about precedents, citations, codes, statutes, etc., generation of causelist; and caveat matching, besides pooling of orders and judgments and accessing international data bases. All this is not going to happen overnight but digital justice is here to stay.

—The writer is a former IPS officer and an advocate at the Punjab and Haryana High Court

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