December 2019 marked the beginning or outbreak of one of the most dangerous contagious diseases, known as Novel Corona Virus, COVID19 in Wuhan District of China. The World Health Organization declared the outbreak a Public Health Emergency of International Concern on 30th January’2020 and a pandemic on 11th March 2020. Since the outbreak of COVID 19, our lives have changed completely as now we need to maintain social distancing, wear a mask, sanitize ourselves in order to prevent ourselves from getting infected with the deadly virus, which has taken away the precious lives of millions of people. Thanks to the virtual platform, as this is one alternative means through which a number of IT Companies, MNCs, educational institutions etc, are still carrying out their work. This disease has affected each and every sphere of human life and the legal field is no exception to this rule. We all know in every State’s High Court, District Court, Sessions Court or CJM Court, the scene is always overcrowded as a number of Advocates with their clients appear in the court of law, to resolve their disputes and hearings for the day. As such, how the courts could be allowed to function the same way, as during any other normal day, its functioning too got adversely affected. Through this article, an endeavour shall be made, as to how during the COVID19 Pandemic period, the functioning of the courts got affected, whether the pending cases got disposed off on the virtual platform, or got postponed to a different date. Whether the legal fraternity is able to adapt and adjust to the ‘New Normal’ or finding it difficult to cope with the new changes which has been introduced for the effective functioning of the courts.
Key words: Pandemic, Virtual, COVID, Advocate, Sanitize, Legal, Mask, Outbreak, Dispute, Adverse
COVID19 or Novel Corona virus shall be remembered in the history of Global Pandemics as one of the greatest challenges human race ever faced since World War II. Just like any other pandemics do, COVID 19 too ascended amongst us without giving us the slightest hint or forewarning. Our courts took effective stringent steps immediately to the threat posed by this virus (COVID-19). New rules were introduced such as, the number of lawyers within the court rooms was restricted and limited, in between the hearings the courtrooms was sanitized, mandatory checking of temperature at the court entrance and social distancing was maintained within the court premises. These rules were imposed not just in the Supreme Court, but all other High Courts and lower courts across the length and breadth of the country. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Damodardas Modi, announced a nationwide Lockdown for 21 days from March 25’2020(12 AM) till April 14’2020. This announcement immediately changed the pace of work, for every citizen of India be he a student, a professional of any field, a daily wage earner or a businessman. Numerous questions and thoughts ran across our minds now, as our whole Life came to a standstill and the first question which came to everyone’s mind is ‘How will we earn our livelihood now?’; ‘How will we complete our syllabus or attend classes now?’As is said, there is a nexus between Law and Society and ‘Law’ is dynamic, it is not static and changes with the changes in society. So, to adapt to this new change, virtual platform became the most efficient way for communication, conduct online classes and exams, webinars, complete undone projects etc. Whatever be the circumstances access to justice cannot be denied and just because of the lockdown, functioning of the courts could not be suspended. If the courts were closed for months, together at a stretch, that would lead to a backlog and delays in the dispensation of Justice. There would be a direct impact on the filing of civil cases, if restrictions are imposed on Economic Activities and even for Criminal cases, the accused would suffer detention as under trials for extended periods, if there is a delay in the examination of witnesses and completion of investigation. All emergencies vest substantial powers in the Executive and more so in a public health crisis increased Government actions may be necessary to preserve the Public Health and Welfare during such a Crisis. In the words of Justice D.Y.Chandrachud, ‘Irrespective of Governmental actions and restrictions, it is above all the duty of courts civil, criminal and constitutional courts to protect the rights of citizens to, ensure governmental accountability in the Rule Of Law.’ So immediately an investigating method through which courts could function during the lockdown was started. There was longstanding work which was being done as part of the National Policy for ICT enablement of the Indian Judiciary and the E-Courts Project was put to test. Almost immediately after the lockdown Video Conferencing hearings took place commencing with the Supreme Court and then spreading across the High Courts and the District Courts. What can be emphasized at this point is that, it could not be possible overnight to switch to video conferencing technology, if we did not have a robust infrastructure and the fact that the legal fraternity could switch-over to video conferencing technology and to use both the hardware and software which was at the command of the judiciary, was because of the fact that a robust infrastructure had been created in the past and over the last several months, when Justice Chandrachud had been co-ordinating with the Chief Justice of the High Courts, the Chairpersons of the Computer Committees and the project co-ordinators, the District Judiciary and the High Courts.
CHANGES IN THE COURT ROOM
The two visible changes that took place in the courts were first of all Video Conferencing was introduced and second a new method of filing i.e. E-Filing came to play.
All Courts across the country has been directed by the Supreme Court in the wake of COVID19, to extensively use video conferencing for judicial proceedings. Under Article 142 of the Constitution the Supreme Court exercised its plenary power to direct all High Courts to frame a mechanism for use of technology during the pandemic.
The Supreme Court of India has embraced modern technology and issued a Standard Operating Procedure dated April15, 2020 for filing and listing of urgent matters, and has been conducting hearing through video conferencing to overcome the lockdown. Similarly the High Courts of various Indian States have designated special courts for video conferencing and the courts registry have permitted litigants to present extremely urgent matters directly to the court without filing the proceeding or even paying the appropriate court fees. In respect of criminal matters, the Hon’ble High Courts of various states have instructed all subordinate courts in the State to entertain only urgent matters, as for example: bail and anticipatory bail applications, remand orders and orders for grants of stay. Having said that, the trial matters of cases, both on civil and criminal sides, which do not merit urgency are put on a backburner. The principal district judges of the subordinate courts have also been given the discretion to control their own operation and functionality.
Though VC was challenging during the initial period of lockdown, mainly, due to lack of expertise and practice of the learned arbitrators and the senior counsel (barristers) to conduct hearings, with the passage of time however the fraternity of arbitrators and litigators have familiarized themselves with conducting of hearings via VC. It has not been easy to conduct examination of witnesses as this requires a lot more diligence including to ensuring that nobody prompts the witness during the examination. Moreover, the lower courts presently are not equipped with the expertise or sophistication to deal with such matters, hence the hearing listed for examination of witnesses has practically been adjourned. (www.ibanet.org- Report Impact of COVID19 on Court Operations and Litigation Practice).
E-FILING-The High Court of New Delhi vide circular no.10 (IT)/DHC/2020 dated 11.06.2020 invited all concerned for the e-inauguration of the ‘Online e- Filing System of Delhi High Court’ on 13th June’2020.This facility was inaugurated by Hon’ble Mr.Justice D.N.Patel, Chief Justice Delhi High Court. This facility enabled the Advocates/litigants-in-person to file fresh cases/ caveat as well as applications/ reply/ rejoinder/ documents/ vakalatnama etc. in the pending cases either from their chamber, office, residence or any other place at any time, without the necessity of personally visiting the Filing Counters or Designated Counters.(delhidistrictcourts.nic.in- Delhi District Courts: Official Website)
Electronic Court Filing (ECF) is the solution that allows those systems or entities participating in the e-filing process to communicate and exchange data with one another. The primary system utilized to prepare and submit court filings electronically is known as an Electronic Filing Service Provider or EFSP. (www.oasis-open.org. 7steps to Electronic Filing with Electronic Court Filing 4.0 Crisis)
ADVANTAGES OF E-FILING: One of the most important advantages of E-Filing is that it is very convenient to file as it remains open for 24x7. Court Fees can also be paid from the comfort of one’s office or party’s home using credit card or internet banking. One of the feasibility is that, an e-filing system which is properly designed to provide online access to files will permit Attorneys representing parties to have immediate access to the filings as soon as they are up on site.
E-COURTS PROJECT- The e-Courts project was conceptualized on the basis of the ‘National Policy and Action Plan for implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the Indian Judiciary-2005’ submitted by e-Committee, Supreme Court of India with a vision to transform the Indian Judiciary by ICT enablement of Courts.
Phase I of the e-court project was from February 2007, until March 2015, with a sanctioned outlay of 935 crores. Video Conferencing between courts and jails were governing 840 locations. A Case Information Software (CIS) was developed as part of the e-Courts project.CIS Modules 1.0 was also developed based on the Court periphery Model which was installed in all the District Courts and data of 2.2 Crores pending and disposed off cases were done and was then made available. Phase II of E-Courts Project was launched on 4th August 2015 and it covers 4 years or until the phase is completed at a cost outlay of 1670 crores. As part of the e-courts Project various initiatives were being taken up. Model Rules of Video Conferencing has been sent out and circulated to the High Court for the purpose of acceptance. Among the critical features of the Model of VC Rules are the principles that all recourse to VC must be made available to public access. The essential nature of the Judicial Process which is access to the Public Court Room must be preserved in the course of VC. The 2nd important facet of the e-court project is the customization of the Operating System Software. Every District Court has its own website on which judicial orders are uploaded. The Court, the spine of the CIS is the CNR number. The CNR Number is attached to a case. It’s a Case Number Record, it’s a unique identifier to each case which is pending and which is being disposed off throughout the country. The CNR number can be converted to QR Code images by simply scanning the QR Code the user can get the entire case history of the case. E-Seva Kendras has been setup in a principal location in every High Court with a pilot and then one pilot location in the District. The idea of setting up E-Seva Kendras is to cover the technological divide.
CONCLUSION- The wheels of justice should move on and the Indian Judiciary has very successfully adapted to the new mode of justice dispensation through the virtual platform though technical glitches are there. Virtual Courts are not a substitute of an open court hearing rather it facilitated in maintaining social distancing. But now virtual Court hearing shall be perceived as an important aspect of the judiciary which shall save travel expenses and time too.
LLM (Crime and Criminology & IPR).