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e-Courts - Digital justice delivery

e-Courts - Digital justice delivery

Introduction:

  • Access to justice is a key citizen need that requires a futuristic approach to enhance efficiency, equity, and ease.

Background:

  • Delivery of justice: In popular perception, Indian courts are not associated first with the delivery of justice, but with long delays and difficulties for ordinary litigants.

  • Cases Pendency: According to data released by the Supreme Court in the June 2020 newsletter of the e-Committee, 3.27 crore cases are pending before Indian courts, of which 85,000 have been pending for over 30 years.

  • Can technology be used to revolutionise India’s courts? Yes, but only when it operates within the constitutional framework of the fundamental rights of citizens.

  • If not, technology will only further exclusion, inequity and surveillance.

The e-Courts project:

  • The e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India recently released its draft vision document for Phase III of the e-Courts project.

  • Phases I and II had dealt with digitisation of the judiciary, i.e., e-filing, tracking cases online, uploading judgments online, etc.

  • This has been quite successful particularly so during the COVID-19 pandemic, when physical courts were forced to shut down.

  • Despite some hiccups, the Supreme Court and High Courts have been able to function online. This was made possible by the e-Courts project, monitored by the e-Committee.

  • Digitisation of court: There is commitment to the digitisation of court processes, and plans to upgrade the electronic infrastructure of the judiciary and enable access to lawyers and litigants.

  • Ecosystem approach: However, the document goes on to propose an “ecosystem approach” to justice delivery.

  • Interoperable Criminal Justice System: It suggests a “seamless exchange of information” between various branches of the State, such as between the judiciary, the police and the prison systems through the Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS).

  • Phase II of the e-Courts project saw the development of the National Service and Tracking of Electronic Processes, a software that enabled e-service of summons.

Significance of Digital Judicial Service:

  • The draft attempts to transform administration of justice from being a sovereign function to a service,’ says SC’s e-committee chaired by Justice DY Chandrachud.

  • The draft underlines the concept of “whole-of-system approach” in the hope of an integrated criminal justice system with integration and interoperability between prisons, courts and Ministry of Home Affairs.

  • Live-streaming of court proceedings will enable building trust and transparency.

  • It is a positive step in bringing to the forefront the need for technology and technology-augmented processes to enhance justice delivery for those who need it the most.

A cause for concern:

  • Criminal Justice and Police Accountability Project Organisation says that the ICJS will likely exacerbate existing class and caste inequalities that characterise the police and prison system.

    • This is because the exercise of data creation happens at local police stations.

  • Data Storage: This is of particular concern since the data collected, shared and collated through the e-Courts project will be housed within the Home Ministry under the ICJS.

  • The “seamless exchange of information” relies on large-scale gathering and sharing of data. Data collection is by itself not an evil process.

    • It is only when data collection is combined with extensive data sharing and data storage that it becomes a cause for concern.

  • Right to Privacy: The Supreme Court must take care not to violate the privacy standards that it set in Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017), especially since India does not yet have a data protection regime.

  • 360-degree profile: Data can be useful when it provides anonymous, aggregated, and statistical information about issues without identifying the individuals.

    • Unfortunately, there has been a dangerous trend towards creating a 360-degree profile of each person.

  • Targeted surveillance: 360-degree profile approach has been perfected by social media platforms and technology companies, and the government is now trying to do the same.

    • The difference is that when technology companies do this, we get targeted advertising, but if the government does it, we get targeted surveillance.

Way Forward:

  • Since the Phase III vision document is a draft, there is still an opportunity to abandon the ecosystem approach.

    • The objectives were to streamline judicial processes, reduce pendency, and help the litigants.

  • To continue to do that within the framework of our fundamental rights, the e-Courts must move towards localisation of data, instead of centralisation.

  • The e-Committee must prevent the “seamless exchange” of data between the branches of the state that ought to remain separate.

  • Technology plays an important role in the project, but it cannot be an end in itself.

Conclusion:

  • Progressive and disruptive changes in justice delivery can alter the course of access to justice in an unprecedented way.

  • The Vision has key components that can act as building blocks for ensuring ease of access to justice for the common man

Source: The Hindu