“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe. “
- Frederick Douglass
This statement quite vividly resonates with the kind of scenario of justice we have in our beautiful country and a large number of pending cases are a testimonial of this truth. We would be reaching our 75th year of independence soon, but this situation is not even close to the kind of progress, our forefathers imagined for our country by this time. To add to this, the coronavirus pandemic worked like putting oil in a wildfire, and further endangered our precarious situation. In the middle of all this commotion, when the whole country was in lockdown and access to justice seemed like a far cry, the courts started to hear cases online with the help of different mediums.
This initiative invoked freshness and was so effective in the prevailing conditions, that even the parliamentary panel on law and justice headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav has recommended the continuation of virtual courts even in a post-COVID scenario. The committee has stressed on the point that, “It is time, the courtroom which is often regarded as the last bastion of antiquated working practices opens its doors to the latest technology.”
THE SCENARIO IN INDIA AND OTHER COUNTRIES
Why is there such a sudden surge in the chit-chat regarding these Virtual courts? What makes them so special? There’s no clear date as to when these courts were started but it was first established in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The members and staff there didn’t have fixed offices and they mainly worked from their own offices in the provincial capital of Victoria.
Similarly, the Singapore Supreme Court, High Court, and Family Courts now have adopted video conferencing through Zoom for hearings, counseling, and mediation. Courts in the United States of America, Canada, and Australia are also bracing themselves to conduct matters in a similar manner.
In India, during the pre-COVID period, the video-conference (VC) set up was primarily used for conducting remand matters to prevent the movement of prisoners between courts and jails. The High Courts and District Courts across India have heard over 26 lakh cases virtually, according to data collated by the union law ministry.
Between March 24 and September 31, the 25 high courts of the country collectively heard 68,8318 cases via video conferencing. The nearly 19,000 district courts heard 1933492 cases virtually in the period, according to the Department of Justice in the Law Ministry.
Considering that we are no way near the end of the pandemic, we need to sustain or rather increase our efforts to strive towards the common dream for our Justice system and this reformation is ought to happen but the question is, who will be the torchbearer in this endeavor which is necessary for human existence?
The UK has experimented with the use of video technology in courts since 1999. Pilots at that point indicated that increased use of video could bring benefits to the criminal justice system. Though videoconferencing facilities are quite extensively installed throughout the UK, their use in practice seemed to be limited. As far back as in 2011, two initiatives were launched to test the potential of video technology in courts; ‘live link’ which allows police officers to give evidence from police stations, and the ‘virtual court’ program which allows prisoners to appear in court from police stations but the progress has been comparatively slow since then, but things began to change from 2020 and are on the up ever since.
Let’s even take the example of a civil law country like the Netherlands, where the Dutch courtrooms have been redesigned to use high quality videoconferencing technology, allowing them to connect to studios in prisons. These ‘virtual’ or videoconferencing courtrooms are effectively one court divided into two physical parts. The courtroom in the court building seats the judge, prosecutor, clerk, and members of the public (and sometimes the defense lawyer), and the prison studio seats the defendant, interpreter (and sometimes defense lawyer). Though together they form the same virtual courtroom and are decorated in identical style, the two physical parts might be separated by hundreds of miles.
The Netherlands has focused on videoconferencing in courts since 2002, beginning with research and mock-up trials conducted with stakeholders, followed by a tender specification and limited roll-out of videoconferencing equipment in 2007, and the subsequent decision to roll-out nationwide in 2008.
THE ROAD SO FAR
So, we get that this commotion has been in the works for a long, and is still a work in progress but India has been especially behind despite having the potential to succeed and also being among the top countries in organizations like G-20, UN, etc.
One of the biggest disparities India has is the internet divide which is a mighty prick in the path of justice to the people. According to TRAI Figures, Urban Internet Subscribers are 439.99 Million despite being just 30% of the whole population of the country and the rest were Rural Internet Subscribers of 247.63 Million. This means that Urban Internet Subscribers per 100 people is a whopping 104.25 and Rural Internet Subscribers per 100 people is a meager 27.57. This is a huge hurdle to fill especially in the lower courts where many rural people try to approach but find it difficult because of many reasons, including the low number of judges there and also taking into account their digital competencies.
Also, there are privacy concerns all over the world, where we fear virtual courts will compromise the privacy of data as well as the confidentiality of discussions and court proceedings. For instance, courts in the United States had to deal with Zoom bombing — an unwanted intrusion by hackers and internet trolls into a video conference call — while conducting court proceedings through Zoom, which is a third-party software application.
There were also concerns regarding the openness of the courts, thereby one could also advert to the United Kingdom for suggestions on ensuring that the principle is not hindered. It is by way of the amendments brought in by the Coronavirus Act, 2020 that it was possible to broadcast the proceedings live to the public and even provide the transcripts online.
THE WAY AHEAD
During the first week of May, the Supreme Court issued a press release noting that the virtual court system was not antithetical to the open court system.
A representation from the Bar Association has also recently argued that over 50 percent of lawyers do not have access to a computer or a laptop simply because they have never needed one in the past. Virtual courts also enable a lawyer located in a remote location in the country to argue multiple cases at different high courts on the same day, which saves time to encourage and disseminate more justice to the people who are in dire need of it.
With Kerala already starting to provide internet broadband throughout the state, we’re moving towards the ‘new normal’ and this can help to brighten our chances of having a faster justice delivery system. Following what we set out to achieve by the 2018 judgment of Swapnil Tripathi Vs Supreme Court of India, Gujarat high court has started to show live proceedings through YouTube and even SC will soon follow up.
Also, many forms of SC and high courts are outdated (like SC’s Form 28, Online Passport) and it’s difficult to write facts in it and many a time, judges dismiss a case just because there’s a lack of complete explanation for the same. This problem can be easily solved through the online medium. If a case is filed online, then Artificial Intelligence can sort out 80 % of cases. In US Law Firms are using AI to do the same. So, in my humble opinion, Legal Fraternity will have to practice and learn online procedure.
What I think is that many people feel that modernization will completely wipe off the offline court structure and weaken it, but that is not the case and neither do I support it. Rather, technology can act as a stepping stone to reach the higher echelons, we want our justice system to reach. Fearing the inevitable might not take us anywhere but embracing it with open arms will help us see its whole potential, and as we understand through the words of Thanos “Dread it, run from it, Destiny still arrives all the same.”
Right here, we all have got an opportunity in disguise. The coronavirus, even for a little time, improved nature’s health and showed us that we are the ones who destroyed nature and it’s us only who can correct our mistakes. Same way, we’ve come to realize that technology can indeed help us, we just need to look together in the right direction to achieve it.
Author(s) Name: Arnav Mathur (Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow)