Pandemic is having its say everywhere. When Nation is on Lockdown, Judiciary is no exeption. Judiciary is trying to disrupt the disruption by embracing Videoconferencing. So much so, we have had Senior Advocate Harish Salve appearing in some cases from London and rescuing litigants with interim orders of desperation. It is commendable. Now read what the Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde has to say on the technical tools at play.
“Eventually, it must settle down to a system which is a combination of the two, the new and the old. There are cases which have to be heard in congregation. One thing is for sure that there is no looking back. We will have to first of all accept the present situation and change our mindset towards the way we look at court proceedings. This system has in a sense virtually brought the court registry into the chambers of advocates. Starting with constitutional courts, the new system will allow lawyers to file cases 24×7, even on holidays, with e-payment facility to pay court fees,” he said.
CJI Bobde alluded to the disposal of the long pending Ayodhya Ramjanmabhoomi litigation and said, “Had Artificial Intelligence (AI) been employed, the 40 days that the SC’s five-judge bench took to go through the case files and render a decision could have been even shorter. E-filing is undoubtedly very significant since it is the basis of a system of AI. We do not have to deal with it immediately, but in times to come we will have to as AI can play a great role in smoothening the functioning of courts, including categorisation of cases and process automation which is a term covering a wide range of activities,” he said.
Justice D Y Chandrachud, chairman of the e-committee joined in to say that the apex court and 19,000 courts in India had successfully experimented with virtual courts and e-filing system, in which technology’s use was driven by the motto— efficiency, transparency and access to every user of justice delivery services.
“Not everyone has access to technology. Our solutions must be inclusive and reach out to those who do not have access. Opening of e-seva kendras in all courts in the country for making e-services available is a step in that direction. We must seek to provide sustainable digitisation and bring about a transformational change in re-conceptualising interactions between citizens, lawyers, the judiciary and the environment with emphasis on trust, empathy, sustainability and transparency (TEST) principles,” he said.
Be that as it may, this is what Bar Council of India Chairman Manan Kumar Mishra has demanded on the practice of E Platforms. “If such practice is encouraged and allowed to continue, there is not an iota of doubt that more than 95% of the advocates of the country will become brief less and work less and the practice of law will be confined to a limited group of lawyers and justice delivery would be badly affected,” Mishra said in a letter addressed to Chief Justice of India SA Bobde.
While reluctantly acknowledging that the resort to Videoconferencing by Supreme Court and High Courts may be the need of the hour, at this moment of time, it ought not to stay beyond a minute of its need. “…are thinking on such a tangent and making such utopian plans as if they are planning upon implementing and executing such ideas for a fully developed nation like (the) UK, (the) USA, or in some country other than India,” Mishra wrote. He warned that 90% of Judiciary, judges and lawyers inclusive, may be technologically handicapped and even access to the tools was not universal for the robed brethren.
Surely, the existence of Judiciary is not for the profession to thrive. It is meant to pay obeisance and get mercy from the Blind Lady of Justice to the proverbial common man as service from the noble profession. Incidentally ,yes, the professionals make a living. Think of the selfless Covid-19 warriors on the front, middle and back lines. The ultimate cause and the justification for the very existence of Judiciary is the poor and humble litigant and the legal professionals merely play a mediator between him and the high priests on the pulpit. If either the high priest or the service provider appropriate different roles for themselves, the community that needs to be served gets squeezed in the middle, to paraphrase Justice V R Krishna Iyer, from his many sayings.
The BCI Chairman not so indirectly alluded to a possible ‘conspiracy’ by the elite class in the profession, to appropriate the services for themselves at the cost of the vast majority of the common folk .“Our thought process is very advanced, and it should be so too, but we can’t be jumping the gun and foraying into a totally impractical and unworkable world,” he wrote.
Where are we headed? The Law Commission’s 125th report said: “The Supreme Court sits in New Delhi alone. The Government of India on a couple of occasions sought the opinion of the Supreme Court of India for setting up branches in the South. This proposal did not find favour with the Supreme Court. The result is that those coming from distant places like Tamil Nadu in South, Gujarat in West and Assam and other states in the East have to spend a huge amount on travel to reach the Supreme Court. An adjournment becomes prohibitive.”
In addition, the 229th Law Commission report said that one bench each can be set up in the northern, southern, eastern and western regions to deal with all appellate work arising out of orders/ judgments of High Courts. But so far, there has been no forward movement on this issue. At last count, the Full Court of the Supreme Court has rejected regional benches, 7 times. Late Justice M. Srinivasan, from Madras High Court, on the Supreme Court said, “There must be only one Thirupati, Vatican or Mecca”. Whatever the logic or logistics, the clarion calls for easier access to Supreme Court has been on for a long, long time.
Videoconferencing may just be that god given, sorry Virus given opportunity, where a litigant as party in person, can E File and argue his case himself from Kanyakumari to Kashmir or Jaipur to Manipur or an Advocate on Record file the case from New Delhi, and the cause argued by an advocate from Tuticorin or Cuddapah or Kasargode or Mangalore or Digboi in Assam. That, dear reader may be the dream grant of a wish for regional benches Pan India, in your homes, if there could be.
(Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan- Author is practising advocate in the madras High Court)