New Delhi: Digitisation of more than 3,000 crore documents of trial courts and high courts, 1,000 paperless lower courts, over 1,000 dedicated virtual courts in subordinate judiciary, and procurement of cloud space for digital storage — these are some of the key focus areas of the central government during Phase III of its eCourts project.
The eCourts Mission Mode Project was conceptualised in 2005 with a vision to transform the Indian judiciary. While Phase I, which began in 2007, focused on strengthening infrastructure, Phase II, which was rolled out in 2015 and is ongoing, emphasised service delivery to litigants, lawyers, and stakeholders.
Phase III, which is likely to be rolled out this year, envisions bringing the justice delivery system to the doorstep of citizens, making the judicial system more efficient and equitable for every individual who approaches the courts for redressal.
Announcing an outlay of Rs 7,000 crore in this year’s Budget for the eCourts project, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said that Phase III — which will be rolled out over four years — will be launched for an efficient administration of justice.
Officials from the Ministry of Law and Justice associated with the project told ThePrint that the digitisation of lower court case documents would be a very important component of this phase and would likely cost almost 30 per cent of the total allocation.
Although the process to digitise judicial records was initiated in Phase II in 2015, it’s likely to be the prime focus in the current phase in order to enable the lower judiciary’s gradual progression towards a paperless functioning, officials said.
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Speaking to ThePrint, a ministry official said lawyers in trial courts are being encouraged to use the e-filing facility for instituting fresh cases. “But the old pending cases need to be digitised so that filing of fresh documents in these matters can also be done online,” the official said, adding that this would not only mean that pending cases will be digitised but some old cases will be as well.
A projection of 3,108 crore cases was given last year to the government by Supreme Court’s e-committee headed by Chief Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, after taking into account the live cases and future accrual of court documents, officials told ThePrint.
The e-Committee is the governing body charged with overseeing the eCourts project.
Even though high courts and subordinate courts are state subjects, the central government is expected to give 100 per cent funding for digitisation of records, officials said.
“We are trying to have states on board and would sign a memorandum of understanding with them if they agree to contribute,” another ministry official said.
Virtual hearings, e-Sewa kendras
The second component that is likely to incur expenses in Phase III is the procurement of cloud space to store digitised records and support live-streaming or online hearings.
“This will be procured from either a government or a private agency empanelled by the Ministry of Information and Technology,” the official said.
An effort will be made to have a common platform for all the trial and high courts for live streaming, he said. For now, however, live streaming of court hearings is taking place on YouTube, with each high court having its own channel.
“A common standard operating procedure (SOP) would be designed and necessary amendments would be made to the rules so that live streaming gets adopted by all the HCs and, eventually, by the trial courts,” the second official quoted above said.
This phase will also see a push for virtual hearings.
For this, the operation of more digital courts in the subordinate judiciary would be an important task, officials said.
There are 20,000 trial courts in the country, officials said, of which 1,000 would be identified to move to paperless mode and as many would be prepared to function as virtual courts.
In paperless courts, the plan envisages, the physical appearances of lawyers and litigants would be optional.
“From the filing of the case and documents to the recording of evidence, wherever it is required, would be digital,” a third official told ThePrint.
Virtual courts would work in a hybrid manner. The judge would have the discretion to allow online appearances. Some cases will be dealt with only virtually.
“For example, at present traffic challans are submitted online. Cases pertaining to the Negotiable Instruments Act cases are also heard online. Maybe more such offences could be added to the list so that one need not go to the court to add to the crowd,” the officer said.
In addition, trial courts working in hybrid mode would be linked to district hospitals so that evidence of doctors in criminal cases can be recorded virtually.
“On any given day, 30 doctors appear in various trial courts. If we provide them a link for virtual courts, they can record their statement while attending to their job,” the above-mentioned officer added.
The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to club cases arising out of a common legal question, the development of blockchains to prevent tampering, and reviewing the evidence recorded electronically would be other areas in which work would begin in the third phase.
For this, administrative rules would require modification, officials said.
Phase III would also witness an increase in e-Sewa Kendras in districts and talukas.
E-Sewa is an online platform that enables litigants to obtain information on case status, gives them access to e-filing, and helps them access copies of judgments and orders. Currently, there are 700 such kendras. The plan is to increase this number over the next four years, officials said.
(Edited by Uttara Ramaswamy)
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