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Phase 3 of eCourt project – Soon India will have 24/7 digital window to file cases from anywhere

Phase 3 of eCourt project – Soon India will have 24/7 digital window to file cases from anywhere

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  • GS2 || Polity|| Judiciary || Judicial Reforms

Why in the news?

The eCourts project is a Mission Mode Project (MMP), being implemented by the National Informatics Centre (NIC) under the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP). It was created with the objective of providing services to all key stakeholders through ICT enablement and enhancing judicial functioning.

How a registry does works?

  • India’s apex court sits usually sits in benches of two judges. Larger benches are formed as and when it is necessary. The CJI, as ‘master of the roster’, has the prerogative to allocate cases to all other judges in the court. The Supreme Court registry – the back-end office that receives and processes all documents – makes the allocation based on his orders.
  • The apex court’s roster is based on broadly-divided ‘subject matters’. When a fresh case is filed before the court, it has to be put under one of the ‘subject categories’ listed in the Supreme Court Rules, 2013. There are about 47 broad categories – Letter Petition and Public Interest Litigation matters, academic matters, service matters etc., with multiple sub-categories within them.
  • Many lawyers agree that in the Supreme Court, cases are not allocated strictly based on the roster. Many CJIs list important cases before themselves or send them to other benches depending on the workload of judges.
  • This arrangement is slightly different in high courts, where the roster is more specific. For example, the Delhi High Court’s current roster has all possible categories of cases divided evenly among judges.
  • The apex court does not make the allocation public, while high courts put it in public domain.
  • This allocation would be made manually, but for over a decade, the registry has had digital support to automatically send the case to the concerned bench. The only exception to this is, of course, an order passed by the CJI.

e-Courts Project:

  • The e-Courts project was conceptualized on the basis of the “National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary – 2005”submitted by e-Committee, Supreme Court of India with a vision to transform the Indian Judiciary by ICT enablement of Courts.
  • The e-Courts Mission Mode Project,is a Pan-India Project, monitored and funded by the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India for the District Courts across the country.

The project envisages:

  • To provide efficient & time-bound citizen-centric services delivery as detailed in e-Court Project Litigant’s Charter.To develop, install & implement decision support systems in courts.
  • To automate the processes to provide transparency in the accessibility of information to its stakeholders.
  • To enhance judicial productivity, both qualitatively & quantitatively, to make the justice delivery system affordable, accessible, cost-effective, predictable, reliable and transparent.
  • The e-Courts Integrated Mission Mode Project (Phase-I) is one of the national e-Governance projects being implemented in High Courts and district/subordinate Courts of the Country.
  • The Phase-II of the Project has been approved by e-Committee of Supreme Court of India in January 2014 for further enhancement of ICT enablement of Courts.
  • Limiting the registry’s role in prioritising cases, Phase 3 of the e-Courts project, currently in the draft stage, has proposed a 24/7 digital window to litigants and lawyers to file cases from anywhere, anytime with the provision of scheduling digital hearings in an open courtensuring compliance of timelines by both judges and litigants.
  • Use of artificial intelligence has been proposed to “intelligently recommend schedules for hearing by optimising and coordinating the schedules and time of different actors (judges, lawyers and litigants)”, the draft proposal put up on the website of the justice department seeking stakeholders’ suggestions said.
  • The Centre’s ambitious e-Courts project, initiated in 2005, has completed two phases so far. At a cost of Rs 2,300 crore, it has computerised almost all 19,000 functional district and subordinate courts with broadband connectivity and equipped judges and courtrooms with modern communication gadgets. The Supreme Court e-Committee is responsible for policy planning and strategic direction.
  • The next phase of judicial reforms envisages a complete transformation of Indian courts into digital platforms having facilities of e-Pay, e-Summons, e-Hearings and e-Judgment where litigants can appear remotely, schedule hearings at his/her convenience and an option of choosing alternative dispute resolution mechanism or a regular case while e-Filing.
  • It has proposed an interoperable criminal justice system where connectivity between courts, prison and police will be leveraged to ensure speedy trial of cases and limiting adjournments on account of non-appearance of witnesses or unavailability of lawyers.
  • The digital court will provide for a data exchange protocol embedded with a privacy policy. During the second phase of the e-Courts project, more than 3,400 courts were made videoconference compatible, providing connectivity with prisons. These facilities are already available in the Supreme Court and high courts.
  • Phase 3 also proposes to enable transcription of court proceedings from audio/video format to typed digital record that can be made available to litigants and lawyers after the end of hearings. “Live streaming or sharing recorded court proceedings can enable courts to become more open,” the draft proposal said.
  • The court registry will be converted into a digital case registry where each case will be given a unique number that will help in locating the case as it moves from one level to another, without the need of refiling of documents in case of appeal in higher courts.

Success of the eCourts project:

  • Enablement of electronic monitoring of court-wise case pendency and other key monitoring parameters.
  • Faster disposal of cases and reduction in pendency noted with greater control over management of cases.
  • Simplification of daily operational activities by allowing stakeholders access to electronic judicial services online and providing access to information through the internet.
  • Efficient and effective service delivery in consonance with access to justice for all,ensuring fast and fair trials likely to be achieved on successful completion of the project

Failures of eCourts project:

  • Lack of data on High Court websites
  • Short-sighted policy planning
  • Discontent with available infrastructure
  • Lack of awareness
  • Privacy and data security concerns

Recommendations:

  • Better data capture: Put in place a comprehensive data collection and data gathering plan aligned directly with the objectives of the eCourts policy. Conduct a regular, periodic and exhaustive policy analysis exercise to understand if the policy has met its objectives
  • Fixed timelines and accurate budgeting:Define and strictly adhere to timelines, accompanied with clear accountability and monitoring, by way of policy documentation, and/or guidelines for stakeholders(e.g., judiciary, NIC, vendors). Future policy documentation must provide this information clearly
  • Post-operational maintenance:Have a clear decentralised legacy, maintenance, and upgradation plan for software, hardware and related infrastructure. Design and impart regular training courses for judges and court staff on using these systems. Courses should optimise the use of virtual teaching tools to maximise reach.
  • Data privacy: Have clear rules on data privacy, which must include consequences of data breach, infringement of privacy, etc.
  • Seamless implementation of technology for justice initiative: Design a coordination mechanism to ensure that the Technology for JusticeInitiative is interoperable, compatible, functional and useful, which might require designing joint guidelines for the four projects under this initiative.

Conclusion:

It is critical for policymakers to overhaul the eCourts policy and the manner of its implementation. Ensuring timely implementation of Phase II of the project and resourceful planning for the future that reflects the vision and aspirations of the ambitious eCourtsproject in an achievable manner is of paramount importance. Additionally, the manner in which the judiciary must undertake post-operational maintenance, and periodic technology upgradation must also be laid down to ensure longevity of the effects of project.

Mains oriented questions:

The eCourts project has the potential to fundamentally transform justice delivery and enhance the quality of access to justice afforded to all. Comment. (200 Words)