In the era of Globalisation, technological development in every field is to be ensured. A technologically outdated field will not be able to cater the needs of growing world. Modernisation of Judiciary is an essential for the effective functioning of Judiciary. In a country like India, a modernised judiciary will help to overcome the backlogs and arrears and will help in speedy disposal of cases. Modernisation of a judiciary means the computerisation of records and digitalising of all its services. To meet the needs of modern society the E-Courts Project was conceptualised in 2005.
The efforts to modernise Indian Judiciary is visible from late 1990s. Several schemes and projects were undertaken to computerise the court’s services. National Informatics Centre (NIC) in 1990 began to computerise the records of Supreme Court of India. Filing of cases, generation of cause lists and order sheets, and issuance of orders and judgements etc were made available through online by a specially designed application implemented under the COURTIS (Court Information System) project. JUDIS (Judgement Information System), COURTNIC, LOBIS (List of Business Information System) etc are data bases that helped in eliminating manual cause list and also made pending case status information available.
Under a centrally sponsored scheme, NIC attempted the computerisation of all district courts in 1997. But it failed. Next attempt was made in two stages. The first stage, during 2001-2002, covered 700 city courts in four metropolitan cities and the second stage, during 2003-2004, covered an additional 900 courts in state capitals or in cities where High Courts are located. Besides these two stages a Centrally Sponsored Scheme (CSS) was also implemented for computerisation. But these early attempts failed due to lack of leadership, policy clarity, resources, will and non-corporation of implementing bodies.
The E-Courts Project
The early attempts of digitalisation of Indian Judiciary failed, Lack of modernisation was highly projected in the lower courts and it stood as a challenge on the efficiency if the subordinate courts. In order to overcome this challenge, the E-Courts Project was implemented. The E-Courts Committee submitted “The National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary – 2005” based on which the project was implemented.
The Chief Justice’s Conference-2005 decided to establish an Information Technology and Judicial Reform Cell in all the courts up to District Courts. The then Chief Justice of India, R.C. Lahoti, proposed to constitute an E-Committee in order to assist him in formulating a National policy on computerization of Indian Judiciary and to advise on technology related management. Accordingly, E-Committee was set up by the Government of India to look after the E-Courts Mission Mode Project. This is a project funded and monitored by Department of Justice, Ministry of Law and Justice, Government of India for the District Courts across the country.
E-Committee headed by Justice GC Bharuka was formed. On 11 May 2005, the committee submitted a strategic plan, ‘Strategic plan for implementation of information and communication technology in Indian judiciary’. A three phased Implementation of ICT into Indian Judiciary was suggested in this Strategic Plan. The three phases of strategic plan are:
- Phase I: Initiate ICT implementation in Judicial system.
- Phase II: Coordinate ICT Infrastructure for the Judicial system.
- Phase III: Complete ICT coverage of judicial process and in judicial administration.
The main aim of this project is to provide efficient and time bound judicial services, to provide transparency in accessibility of Information to its stakeholders and to enhance the judicial productivity. It also aims at to make the justice delivery system affordable, accessible, cost effective, predictable, reliable and transparent.
Year 2007 marks the beginning of Phase I. The District and Taluk court complexes were covered in this Phase. Large number of Computer Server Rooms and Judicial Service Centres were set up for the purpose. District Courts launched their on websites for convenience. Judicial officers and Court staffs were trained to use the computer and CIS (Case Information System) Software. Master Trainers were made from among the judicial officers to carry on a continuing training programme. The CIS Master Trainers trained District System Administrators (DSAs) to use CIS. The DSAs trained all the court staffs and this helped for a speedy data entry. 14,249 district and subordinate courts were covered in this phase. 2014 marks the end of Phase I.
On 8th January 2014 the Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India approved the Phase II Policy and Action Plan Document. On 4th August 2015, government of India sanctioned the project. In this phase additional systems and hardware were provided to the different court rooms. The Courts which were not covered in Phase I were covered in this phase and they were also provided with extra hardware and systems. More participation and cooperation of E-Committee and the Department of Justice were ensured. Computerization of District Legal Service Authority, Taluk Legal Services Committee, the National Judicial Academy and the State Judicial Academies were taken care in this Phase.
Provisions are made to connect with Jails and to connect through video conferencing for the production of under trial prisoners. In sensitive cases recording of evidence may be done through online format and may later extend the facility to cover all types of cases. Phase II also provides for Judicial Knowledge Management System which promotes the use of Digital Libraries.
Service delivery to litigants, lawyers and other stakeholders are emphasised in Phase II. More user-friendly services are offered in this phase. Attempts will be taken to make websites available for all in local languages. The applications for mobile phones, SMS and emails will be used. E-Payment Gateways will be provided for making deposits, payment of court fees, fines etc. The National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) will be more updated to provide qualitative information to all.
Phase III of the Project is currently in a draft stage. It limits the role of registry and offer’s a 24/7 digital window for filing and hearing of cases from anywhere in the world at any time. Artificial Intelligence will be used for scheduling the hearing as per the time of judges, lawyers and litigants. This stage offers a complete transformation of judicial activities to digital platform. E-filing, E-hearing, E-pay, E-summons, E-judgement are the facilities offered in this stage. The litigants can schedule a case according to their hearing and option for Alternative Dispute Resolution will also be available for the litigants. The adjournment of cases due to non-appearance of witness or unavailability of lawyers will be reduced and speedy disposal of cases will be made possible. Live Streaming of Courts will be enabled at this stage which makes the court proceedings more open.
E-Court’s National Portal
On 7th August 2013 E-Courts National Portal, ecourts.gov.in, was launched by the Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India. More than 2852 Districts and Taluka Court Complexes are available in the portal. It provides with Case status, Cause lists etc online and also uploads orders/judgements. The details of more than 7 crore pending and disposed cases and more than 3.3 crore orders/judgments of District Courts are available as of now. Introduction of this portal helped the lawyers and litigants on a great extent to know the case details from anywhere at any time.
E-Courts Services Mobile App
E-Courts mobile app provide with retrieval of data of pending cases by searching with CNR (a unique number assigned for a case), parties name, advocates name, FIR number, case type or relevant Act. This is very much helpful to members of the judiciary, advocates, litigants, police etc, to retrieve the case details. It also provides with the history of a case which gives all the events occurred in relation with the case and the orders passed. The details from the first hearing to the current status is available. Judgements and orders passed is available in the app itself. QR Code facility is also added to get the case details by scanning the QR Code. This App received Digital India award as a revolutionary court information tool.
So far two phases of E-Court Project have been completed and the third phase is in draft stage. Around 19,000 district and subordinate courts were computerised at a cost of 2,300 crore. Courtrooms with equipped gadgets, broadband connectivity and equipped judicial staffs are now available. Implementation of Phase III of the E-Courts project is need of the hour as the current Pandemic situation makes virtual courts a necessity. Due to the lockdown and other Covid Protocols that exist in our nation normal functioning of courts is rarely possible. Most of the courts now function through video conferencing. Courts use different platforms to function. There is no uniform procedures and guidelines for such functioning and this slows down the functioning of courts. So, implementation of a centralised procedure is necessary, Phase III should be implemented as soon as possible.
Author: Akheela Farzana from Govt. Law College, Ernakulam.