The outbreak of the COVID-19 caused widespread havoc all across the globe and changed the day-to-day schedule drastically. The global pandemic has expanded opportunities for various types of crime and bringing up a new challenge for the Justice system.
Social isolation and nationwide lockdown impacted the legal sector to remain closed. Irrespective of the situation, the constitutional right of access to justice cannot be denied, and hence just like any crisis brings up an opportunity to do something innovative, a change to the new normal, the virtual court system was born out of necessity.
The high court of Punjab and Haryana launched its first virtual court in August 2019 in Faridabad. Virtual courts has the presence of lawyers, judges, and all those involved with a case online over a video conference. It can be used for sharing documents, evidence, hearing arguments at trial as well as the appellate stage. This will result in the complete computerization and digitalization of the court system thus making use of digital signatures, e-filing, and so on.
An E-committee was formed by Supreme Court in 2005 which recommends the use of technology to maintain documents digitally. The committee initiated an e-court project monitored by the Ministry of Law and Justice for all the district courts across the country. E- Court project will have case information software or apps which also gives a complete update about the trial, hearing, summons, etc. which will ultimately help us to check the status of the case and also act as an aid during the functioning of virtual courts.
The number of cases pending is in lakhs both in the high court as well as in lower courts. The pending cases if left unattained may exceed. Therefore it is necessary for speedy trial and speedy disposal of cases. This can be achieved by analyzing the advantages, disadvantages, challenges, concerns, consequences, finding solutions and implementation so that virtual court or a hybrid court also becomes the future of justice and not just a response to the pandemic.
The advantage of the virtual courtroom is the flexibility to work 24*7*365, availability of the tribunals and litigants on business days, and cut short the expenses due to maintenance of infrastructure, staffs, security, travel expense and other court expenditures.
A study conducted in London showed the improved court timing and the lesser time gap between charge and first hearing. Adjudication of the cases can be done in a time-bound manner. All of these results in speedy trial and delivery of justice thus nurturing the faith of citizens in the judiciary. It will even be helpful with cross-border cases.
Any new creation will have its own merits and demerits and a lot of challenges and concern at the initial stage which should be rectified for its smooth and swift functioning. The installment and full-fledged working of the virtual court in a developing country like India will be highly challenging due to glitches and shortcomings in its execution and loopholes in the implementation procedure.
One of the major concerns is the wholehearted acceptance of the people in a conservative society. One way to help this is by defining a court as a service that is provided at a place and not as a place that provides the service.
Other challenges include risk of tampering of evidence because it is digital, complications of e-filing, hacking, and cybersecurity, privacy, the authenticity of witness, confidentiality concerns, transparency in functioning, technical problems like Wi-Fi, unavailability of electricity, computer and internet connections in the talukas/villages, credibility assessment and speedy trial result in stagnation in the quality of justice.
None of these challenges are unresolvable. In a country like India that has over 25 high courts and about 600 district courts and other subordinate judicial institutions, setting up the required technology will be cost-intensive but it can be considered as a one-time installment to develop the nation. Even though India has the second-largest number of internet users, 50 percent of Indians do not have internet access.
Technology can only be embraced if it is consistent in having fair proceedings and is accessible to all. To ensure meaningful participation of the marginalized population, self-represented litigants, and individuals on the other side of the digital divide, we need to:
- Create internet hot spots or conference rooms with a reliable and consistent connection at the nearest police station as a safe access point.
- Provide support during any technical glitch.
- Training should be given to staff, clerks, lawyers, judicial officers regarding all aspects of digitalization and computerization of the virtual court.
- Bar council of India can introduce a computer course in the syllabus of students pursuing law as part of college education and training.
- To maintain privacy and security of data instead of using third-party software, software should be developed for India’s judicial system and use technologies like blockchain so that we can make use of the innovations of legal technology start-ups and technical skills of Indian software developers.
- Regular checks for bugs or viruses should be done.
- While designing the virtual courtroom, insights using surveys, interviews, and discussion from advocates, defenders, prosecutors, court employees and more should be considered.
- Instead of live streaming as it might not be comfortable, hearings can be recorded by an authenticated person for future references and as part of the transparency project.
- Strict rules and guidelines should be established regarding viewing angle, the position of the camera, microphone, screen, speakers, and the video should be on throughout the hearing.
- No one should be able to manipulate the view by zooming, focusing, or panning the camera.
- Specific policies should be administered in cases of an evidentiary hearing like China.
- Face recognition technology can be used to authenticate the judiciary involved in the trial.
Despite all the challenges and hurdles, the supreme court of India completed over 100 days of the virtual court system and hearing of over 15000 matters indicating that virtual court is not impossible and that it is definitely a boon for the Indian judicial system if we clear all the obstacles, consistently evaluate, find a mechanism to make it better and make a failproof system in the right direction.
The virtual justice system is undoubtedly a winning solution against the pandemic crisis and the finest opportunity towards the globalization and digitalization of our nation.