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Judicial reforms (Access to justice)

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Justice is an essential element of any civilisation. Its prevalence leads to order and progression whereas its absence may lead to chaos and anarchism. Justice can be seen dispensed only when it is accessible, transparent, reliable, and unbiased. 

The journey of Justice in India started as early as in the 3rd Century B.C when Kautilya emphasised on the need for an efficient, effective, and impartial justice mechanism. Distinctions were made between civil matters and the matters of criminal jurisprudence at an early age. He, in his treatise Arthashastra, dedicates Kantakashodhan Adhikarna to the criminal justice system, thus elaborating the parameters of the rule of law.

Justice then, was not only accessible to all but also instant. As time passed various rulers came and different definitions of justice and justice delivery emerged. Different cultures, communities, nations saw different principles of justice, some being moral, some based on conventions, whereas some relied on pure literature. However, one key concept to uphold the justice mechanism was common in all the sections and that was accessibility. Judicial system is of no use if people are not able to benefit from it. Inaccessible and partial justice leaves resentment in the people which is not good for the state.

Legends have it that Manunidhi Cholan, in order to make justice accessible, had installed a bell of justice in his kingdom. Not only the bell was answered with sincerity but the justice was also dispensed immediately. However, with the advent of Britishers, Justice in India faced a huge setback. Pendency in the cases increased exponentially and when combined with police brutality, the scenario was very exploitative to its genesis. Justice became no longer accessible to the common man. 
India got independence from the British empire and a new constitution vowed to take the judicial system to the path of progression.

But Justice was reaching the masses at a very slow pace. With the turn of the century, the need for an accessible and inclusive judicial process started increasing. Soon it was realised that with the prevailing pendency of cases, poor judge to people ratio, and existence of vacancies at all levels of judiciary, it was difficult for justice to reach the people belonging to all sections of the society. Thus in 2005, an ‘E-Courts’ project was conceptualised under National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology in the Indian judiciary. It gave way to the future but its potential was not tapped completely.

In 2020, Covid spread like wildfire, having severe implications not only in economic and social domains but also in legal institutions. Countries like Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Portugal, etc. introduced video conferencing for court hearings during the pandemic as soon as they could. Similar stance was observed by the Indian Courts as well. The ‘e-committee’ of the hon’ble Supreme Court took on the challenges aggressively.

While during the pandemic, electronic filing of the cases and digital payments system smoothened the sail upto an extent, a broad map was being prepared for the tech savvy 21st century courts via ‘Digital Courts’ project. The project aimed to infuse top technologies in improving the digital infrastructure currently available with the courts. 

The proposed reforms envision digitising paper based processes. Which would enable the litigants and lawyers to file a case from anywhere and at any time, thus delivering justice across the geographical barriers. It further aspires to remove redundant and obsolete practices like enormous paperwork, transferring thick files, duplication of efforts, judicial delays, and appearance of clients at multiple windows. 

The project focuses on Judicial Reforms at an unprecedented level. It has the capacity to deal with traditional issues associated with Indian Judiciary as well as various contingencies of contemporary times. 

It has been observed that the majority of cases in the Supreme Court hail from the neighbouring states only. To bring justice geographically closer to people, 125th and 229th reports of the Law Commission recommended creating regional benches of the Supreme Court. However, the technological reforms which empower people to attend hearings, file claims, and upload documents online resolves this problem up to a great extent. Without having to travel,  justice becomes affordable and cost effective.

Subordinate judiciary is often accused of corruption prevailing in its premises, which makes the justice delivery process a nightmare for litigants. The proposed reforms also seem to remove this obstacle in accessibility to justice as the transparent system due to online payments and machine reading of receipts will save them from any harassment if present. 

In the post-covid era, the new normal will be based majorly on technology, hence the judicial reforms shall follow similar lines as well. Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things should be used for recommending the schedules of the process by coordinating with multiple actors at various levels. Thus, saving time and resources of the stakeholders involved.

The future generation reforms should not be a half-hearted effort, since it  will have the potential of serving complete justice sitting miles away. By using the blockchain technology, the digital signatures, smart forms, digital footprints all can be secured completely, thus reducing chances of forgery or duplication and systems like Optical Character Reader can be put in place for making legal documents machine readable. All of this without compromising transparency  and giving due attention to the privacy of the litigants at the same time.

Even though justice is not linguistically variable, litigants are. Artificial Intelligence can be further brought in to translate the judgements even in the regional languages of the remotest place, so as to benefit the poor and bring the judicial institution a step closer to them. Digital Case Management System, Interoperable Criminal Justice System will smoothen the functioning and coordination of the executive and judicial agencies. It will aid in seamless transfer of documents and information at a speed of a click and is bound to have a multiplier effect on other organisations as well.

The reforms include data driven decision making at judicial levels. It shall enable targeted interventions and resource allocation from the side of the judiciary. It will minimise inclusion and exclusion errors as well. The data harnessed can be used for research purposes too as a comprehensive repository of case laws will always be accessible in the public domain. From minutes of the courtroom happenings to the judgement as pronounced by the judges, all shall be recorded in the electronic format. Transcription of court proceedings will build trust and transparency in the system. Now, as the data generated in the process will be huge, storing it could’ve been an issue in other cases but here cloud based computing and storage mechanisms nib the problem in its bud. 

In simple terms, technology does have a solution to the accessibility of justice. Incorporating technology at regular steps brings justice closer and accessible to the people in proportion. It may be argued that due to the huge digital divide already predominant in Indian society, its reach in the masses might not be as even as expected. 

The challenges however are not limited to just that. Digital and legal literacy, internet penetration, huge digital infrastructure requirements, change management, etc. also pose a good threat to the aim of judicial accessibility in the post-covid era. Behavioural change would be a challenge which policy makers and implementing agencies know very well and adoption to new mechanisms might also not be seen in a good light by some stakeholders. 

Many courts in the country even lack basic electronic infrastructure and assuming that they will all come on board to the new mechanism quickly is just being over optimistic. Moreover, every High Court has its own distinctive administrative practices. The conventions might also be different at various courts, so the uniformity the reforms suggest or aspire to bring in the governance framework might not yield sweet fruits in the primitive stage. 

Prima facie, it may appear that the very people the reforms aim to benefit, might end up getting hurt because of the lack of awareness regarding judicial framework as well as newly inducted digital practices. This may result in justice to be skewed. 

However, a deeper analysis of the reforms suggests that this scenario has already been taken up in the reforms and the presence of omnichannel service delivery platforms, kiosks and ‘E- Sewa Kendras’ at respective courts will prevent that from happening. Sufficient care has been taken for the people who belong to the far flung areas of the society as for the backward areas or the areas with no smartphones or the internet, systems like ‘Interactive voice response system services’ will be placed for the users which will enable them to access the services seamlessly. Such services will also take care of the persons with disability.

Justice will not only be more accessible but also inclusive. Non-State actors such as NGOs, civil society groups may augment the reach of the reforms to the people and make justice more accessible to them. Moreover, if these reforms are complemented with government initiatives like ‘Bharatnet program’, ‘Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyaan’, ‘Digital India’, etc. it will yield best results. With the advent of 5G and increasing smartphone penetration in rural areas, the picture of reforms is not a grim one.  

To address the issue of change management, training programs should be organised at various levels for court staff, judicial officers, advocates and their clerks, etc. and general awareness programmes for the masses. Tutorial videos, video programmes and series regarding the judicial office can be uploaded on various social media platforms, media platforms and educational platforms for empowerment of the masses. Legal aid programmes especially for the poor and the marginalised groups hold the key for filtration of the reforms to the lower strata of the society. 

21st century justice system App based startups, online consultancy services, application based solutions may enrich the judicial process by making the judicial system’s services more accessible. For example, ‘Nyaaya’ an initiative of Vidhi Centre for legal policy aims to provide comprehensive and detailed information on legal topics covering various aspects of law under its ambit with which people engage in their day to day life. More such initiatives are bound to come in future which will empower all the stakeholders involved in a comprehensive manner.

Thus, the reforms have the potential to transform the judicial process in India with the ecosystem approach, and thereby promote synergy amongst involved institutions. Justice which was traditionally seen as institution centric is becoming more people centric and these reforms enhance the process by bringing justice close to the people in numerous ways.

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