ADMINISTRATION OF JUSTICE DURING THE PANDEMIC: AN INDIAN PERSPECTIVE

INTRODUCTION

Indian democracy, despite facing several challenges, has successfully continued to function in a democratic way in order to meet the needs and expectations of the people as well as the Constitution. People’s governance enables every successive government to maintain democratic ideals throughout the country. The three pillars or the organs of the government, namely legislature, executive, work hand in hand to keep the 75 years old political legacy adaptive, fresh, and popular. The Judiciary, the third organ of the government, has the responsibility to apply the laws to specific cases and settle disputes by interpreting and applying laws. Lord Bryce has most beautifully stated the importance of the judiciary by stating – ‘There is no better test of excellence of a government than the efficiency of its judicial system…’[1] One of the most important functions of the judiciary involves the administration of justice, whose foremost aim is to punish the wrongdoer and to protect the rights of the citizens.

Everything was going on at a smoother pace to achieve betterment but then came the pandemic, which fuelled a crisis for democracy around the world. It has posed a never imagined challenge to every sector of the economy and every activity of the nation[2]. Since the outbreak began, the democratic ideals and human rights conditions had grown worse in more than 80 countries. This unprecedented situation made several democratic governments respond in unpredictable and dictatorial ways which include shutting down important institutions, brutal use of power, etc., and ultimately the judiciary was the only hope of the people to get their rights protected while battling with the pandemic. “Law and order is the medicine of the body politic and when the body politic gets sick, medicine must be administered.”[3]

INDIAN JUDICIAL SYSTEM BEFORE THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

What one thinks of the judiciary is physical court hearings, the Supreme Court and the High Courts, trials, etc. Fair enough because technology hasn’t had much influence in the legal field. Traditionally, before the pandemic, everything required the physical appearance of the parties involved, be it lodging an FIR or conducting a legal trial to serve justice. Although, a few initiatives like the e-Courts project, formation of the e-Committee, etc. have been taken. E-Committee was set up in 2004 as the apex body at the national level for helping in the formulation of a National Policy on digitisation of the Indian Judiciary.[4]

The e-Courts project, a pan-India project, monitored and funded by the Department of Justice, was conceptualised in 2005 for eliminating the presence of litigants or lawyers in the court and adjudication of the cases online. However, many challenges like operational difficulties, issues of hacking and cybersecurity, etc. have come in its way and restricted its implementation. Another important step towards the digitisation of the judicial system, which was already taken prior to the onslaught of the COVID-19 crisis, was the launch of the Supreme Court App. This app is free to download and provides information related to pending as well as decided cases. Also, it translates judgements into several regional languages and thus acts as a connecting link between the courts and the illiterate segment of the nation.

REVAMPING OF THE INDIAN LEGAL SYSTEM

Although these initiatives were being used, pandemic increased their usage as well as importance. After the courts were shut down and people were stranded in their homes due to the nationwide lockdown, Virtual Courtrooms came into the picture. Extremely urgent and important cases are being discussed through video conferences while all the other cases are postponed. The parties, their respective advocates, and other advocates, and/or parties awaiting their cases could witness the live proceedings of the cases taken up by the Bench in the ‘virtual courts system’. Media has been given a special facility of being the representative of the audience and thus is too able to access the case proceedings. Another important step being taken is to grant interim bail to the undertrial prisoners in order to decongest the prisons and ensure social distancing in the jails.

Moreover, the virtual courts’ system has enabled electronic filings, which further prevents physical contact with people. E-Lok Adalat too has come into the picture, reaching the doorstep of the parties and delivering informal, cheap, and expeditious justice to the common people. Additionally, the Supreme Court has increased the timelines of all the legal procedures like filing a complaint, framing a charge sheet, etc. to serve justice while dealing with this unprecedented time. “We [the judiciary] always thought of making use of technological services like video conferences, e-courts, etc. to enable marginalised people to access justice. Now, finally, it has been put into action”, Mr. Ramana said.[5] Recently, NITI Aayog has released a report on October 2021, titled ‘Designing the Future of Dispute Resolution: The ODR policy plan for India’, wherein it has laid emphasis on Online Dispute Resolution (ODR). ODR means the usage of ICT tools like smartphones, emails, spreadsheets, laptops, etc. to deliver justice without the physical congregation of the parties.[6]

ROLE OF JUDICIARY DURING THE PANDEMIC

The third pillar of Indian democracy has worked when the two others couldn’t. The Supreme Court, High Courts, and the District Courts worked at their respective levels to fulfill the desires of the people and took a strong stand for them and their rights. The Supreme Court bench consisting of Justice S.R. Bhat, Justice L.N. Rao, and Justice D.Y. Chandrachud questioned the central government regarding the pricing policy of COVID-19 vaccines in the country. The SC also asked the union government to reorganise the distribution of medical oxygen to the states. The bench said, “Death of covid patients due to non-supply of oxygen to the hospitals is a criminal act and not less than a genocide.”[7] The High Court of Delhi conducted daily hearings to attend to the people’s grievances and also asked the Central Government to allocate 490 MT of medical oxygen daily to Delhi. Further, the Madras High Court questioned the Election Commission of India for not stopping the political parties, who were breaking the COVID protocols while campaigning for the assembly elections. The Bombay High Court asked the authorities to provide rural primary health care centres with rapid antigen tests facilities so that people living there are not forced to travel to cities to carry out RT-PCR tests.[8]  

CONCLUSION AND WAY FORWARD

As we all know, the technology used in any field brings a good as well as a challenging impact on its way. The digitisation of the Indian Judiciary has made sure that justice doesn’t get hampered in the catastrophic era. Moreover, the introduction of e-filings has drastically reduced the documentation work and ultimately the wastage of paper. The Modernisation of the Indian Legal System is a turning point in the field of the judiciary as it marks the start of the upgradation and transformation of the entire legal system. However, the authorities will surely have to deal with a ton of challenges while redeveloping the system. As we all have seen, only the extremely urgent cases have been paid attention to while all the others postponed due to the lack of resources. Moving in the same direction, there is always a fear of safety and privacy in the virtual setup amidst the parties and their respective advocates. Another significant issue is technical glitches as technology is still yet to be harnessed to its fullest potential. So, the respective authorities should work towards it and give a new identity to the savior of our rights and at the same time minimise all the technological challenges.  

Author(s) Name: Sanskriti Bhurat (Mumbai University)

References:

[1] K.K. Ghai, ISC POLITICAL SCIENCE (13th Edition, Kalyani Publishers (2020) 335

[2] Kumar Vaibhav, ‘Access to justice during the Covid-19 pandemic: an Indian perspective (International Bar Association) <https://www.ibanet.org/article/f1a1e3a6-675f-455b-b190-038306399cbb> accessed 6 February 2022

[3] Niloy Chongdar, ‘Role of judiciary during pandemic in India’ (IPleaders, 6 August 2020) <https://blog.ipleaders.in/role-judiciary-during-pandemic-india/> accessed 7 February 2022

[4] E-COMMITTEE Supreme Court of India, ‘NATIONAL POLICY AND ACTION PLAN FOR IMPLEMENTATION OF ICT IN THE INDIAN JUDICIARY’ (2005) Page Number 4

[5] Special Correspondent, ‘Concept of e-Lok Adalat has potential to transform legal landscape: SC Judge’ (THE HINDU, 19 September 2020) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/karnataka/concept-of-e-lok-adalat-has-potential-to-transform-legal-landscape-sc-judge/article32650701.ece> accessed 7 February 2022

[6] PIB Delhi, ‘NITI Aayog Pushes for Online Dispute Resolution for Speedy Access to Justice’ (PIB.GOV.IN 29 November 2021) <https://pib.gov.in/PressReleaseIframePage.aspx?PRID=1776202#:~:text=The%20report%20is%20a%20culmination,adopting%20ODR%20framework%20in%20India.> accessed 7 February 2022

[7] Parimal Bajpai, ‘Role of Judiciary in Defending Public Rights in the Light of Pandemic’ (Legal Service India E-Journal) <https://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-5854-role-of-judiciary-in-defending-public-rights-in-the-light-of-pandemic.html> accessed 7 February 2022

[8] PTI, ‘Adhere to COVID-19 norms, then blame govt: Bombay HC to people’ (THE HINDU, 26 April 2021) <https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/mumbai/adhere-to-covid-19-norms-then-blame-govt-bombay-hc-to-people/article34415251.ece> accessed 7 February 2022