New Delhi: The Covid-19 crisis has pushed the Supreme Court to fast-track administrative reforms in the institution, a move that could speed up disposal of cases, digitisation of records and a switch to paperless courts.
At an online seminar held conducted week to unveil the e-courts module, Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde acknowledged that the pandemic gave impetus to the changes brought in during the lockdown period.
Experts believe the much-awaited reforms will streamline access to the justice delivery system and make it affordable for litigants.
A day before the lockdown was announced on 24 March, the top court switched to digital hearing of “urgent matters”. The decision to work in a restricted manner was to follow the social-distancing norms and reduce the footfall in courts.
Perceived as an institution comfortable working in opacity, the Supreme Court adopted technology and opened up to some sort of public scrutiny with video-conference hearings. Judges who rarely use the public address system during court proceedings have held online court from residence, with lawyers addressing them from their offices and, in some instances, their homes.
Initially, the court began with two benches, and has gradually increased them to ten. The number of cases before each bench has also increased.
The top court further invoked its discretionary jurisdiction to permit all high courts and trial courts to hold virtual hearings, subject to their own guidelines.
Video-conferencing could be a precursor to live-streaming of cases, a long-pending demand from advocates and law students. A three-judge bench had, in September 2018, suggested live-streaming of court proceedings in important constitutional matters, but with sufficient safeguards to ensure the purpose is achieved holistically. The proposal is under the CJI’s consideration.
Ruchi Kohli, Additional Advocate General for Haryana in the Supreme Court, said digital hearings are a positive change, though they cannot replace the old system. In her opinion, future hearings should be a judicious combination of physical courtroom proceedings and virtual courts.
Kohli added that the new system has given an identity to advocates-on-record (AOR), who were only allowed to file cases and remained under the shadow of senior arguing counsel during hearings.
“The AOR of each case is required to be present before the court now. Before the hearing begins, judges enquire from the AOR what the matter is about and if the senior counsel is present or not,” Kohli said.
E-filing of cases
The Supreme Court’s e-committee, under Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, has revised the existing e-filing system to design an interactive platform for lawyers and litigants to file cases in the apex court on a 24×7 basis. Right now, cases are filed at designated counters in the court between 10 to 5 pm on weekdays and before noon on Saturdays.
The committee has given a demonstration to lawyers and invited suggestions before its formal launch. In Justice Chandrachud’s words, the model includes a cost-effective method where preparing a huge number of hard-copy petitions will be done away with, and files can be uploaded on the portal. This will further the e-courts project launched in 2005 to digitise court records. In 2017, an attempt was made to make the Supreme Court paperless, but in the absence of an efficient e-filing system, it failed.
The new facility incorporates online court fee payment, use of digital signatures and digitised scrutiny mechanism to identify defects and objections in the petitions.
All documents will be uploaded on the filing portal with signatures of the person filing it. A step-by-step guide is available on the portal to explain how digital signatures can be generated and used for filing. This e-sign facility is provided free of cost, especially for litigants and lawyers who do not possess a digital signature token or cannot afford to purchase it.
Online payments can be made towards court fees and allied charges through Stock Holding Corporation of India. One can pay the court fees by debit card, credit card, UPI or net banking through Atom Bank. Litigants who want to appear in person can register on the portal using paperless ‘know your customer’ (KYC) mode by giving Aadhaar details.
Senior Supreme Court advocate Aishwarya Bhati said it was a positive move.
“E-filing has been in the offing for almost two decades. You do not need two decades to toy with an idea. The pandemic has thrown challenges at us, and the institution has used this opportunity to integrate technology and use it as a force multiplier,” Bhati said.
Single benches to hear transfer petitions, bail matters
The Supreme Court on 11 May amended its rules to allow a single-judge bench to hear transfer cases, as well as bail and anticipatory bail in cases which entails jail terms up to seven years. Three such courts sit daily to take up the cases.
This is the first time since the inception of the top court that single-judge benches are hearing such matters. Until now, the top court had a minimum of two judges hearing any case. Court number one, led by the CJI, sometimes sits in a combination of three judges. In cases where questions of the Constitution arise, a bench of five judges takes up the matter.
The decision to split the benches and have more courts comes in the backdrop of a huge backlog of cases in the top court, with close to 60,000 cases awaiting a final decision. Also, the lockdown has considerably slowed the pace of hearings.
Transfer petitions are filed under the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), which allows the Supreme Court to transfer criminal cases and appeals from one state to another.
Supreme Court counsel Ashwarya Sinha supported the idea of having single-judge benches.
“A large chunk of transfer petitions are of matrimonial cases. They do not require any legal adjudication and all that has to be seen is the convenience of parties involved,” Sinha said. “Normally, a transfer petition is decided in six months. But with this arrangement, where a single judge can sit for a longer duration, these petitions can be disposed within a month.”
Sinha, however, cautioned against following such a practice in heinous criminal cases, where the integrity of the state police is questioned, and transfers are requested on the grounds that an impartial probe is not possible.