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India must build, re-build its courts for disabled. Judicial infra key to justice delivery

While the NJIC structure may overcome bureaucratic complications, the existence of experts from professional disciplines is a crucial element missing.

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Since he took oath as the Chief Justice of India, Justice N. V. Ramana has been  vocal about the crippling court infrastructure being a stumbling block in access to justice. Judicial infrastructure is a necessary component of justice delivery and its inadequacy adversely affects not just litigants and advocates, but also the judges, judicial officers, and staff. Recognising this gap, the CJI has conceptualised the National Judicial Infrastructure Corporation or the NJIC with the intention to build modern and self-sufficient courts in India.

The task cut out for the NJIC is mammoth — one of its biggest challenges will be ensuring accessibility of courts to diverse sections of society, especially people with various physical or situational disabilities. Our study conducted in 2019 of 665 district courts found that only 27 per cent of these courts had ramps at the entry and inside court premises; 2 per cent had visual aid tools such as Braille notices and tactile pathways; and 11 per cent had washrooms designated for persons with disabilities. Furthermore, only 20 per cent had guide maps and 45 per cent had a helpdesk. A survey undertaken by the CJI’s office in 2021 had similar findings indicating that very little has been done towards mitigating this state of affairs. Out of the 6,000 trial courts surveyed, as many as 67 per cent were found inaccessible for people with disabilities.

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Why are our courts not disabled-friendly?

One of the reasons behind the lack of facilities is the absence of a governing document binding courts to any standards of accessibility. Currently, district courts are sanctioned and built under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme for Judicial Infrastructure (CSS). The revised guidelines for the CSS states that the court complexes must provide barrier-free access. Similarly, the National Court Management Systems Report (NCMS), 2012, states that court complexes should be easily accessible for all and must incorporate universal design principles to meet local needs and conditions. It recommends the use of graphic signage systems that transit language barriers, and washrooms that are accessible to persons with disabilities. However, neither document is binding nor do they provide a comprehensive policy or guidelines to make court complexes accessible.

Since the discourse on accessible public spaces in India is in itself fairly new, the probability of policy action to improve the conditions also remains low. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, and the corresponding 2017 Rules form the basis of the current guidelines on accessible public spaces. The Rules, based on principles of universal design, made it mandatory for all public buildings to conform to the “harmonised guidelines for built environment standards on barrier free built environment for persons with disability and elderly persons”. The National Building Code 2016 also incorporated principles of universal design and provided directions to ensure public buildings are universally accessible. However, neither of these codes provide any specific directions for courts. They were published after the NCMS report and hence, have not been taken into account.

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How do we work towards making our courts inclusive?

  1. Putting in place appropriate guidelines for disabled-friendly court design

There is an urgent need for providing specific directions to incorporate standards of universal design and accessibility in our judicial complexes. For example, the accessibility standards provided under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that are applicable to all public and commercial spaces and government facilities. The standards provide specific mandates for making different parts of the courtroom wheelchair-friendly. The Commission for Disability Rights, United States of America, has also put in place a handbook for Court Access for Individuals Who Are Deaf and Hard of Hearing to ensure that court proceedings are being effectively communicated to persons with hearing impairments.

Specific provisions for making the court complex disabled-friendly have also been incorporated in the Court and Tribunal Design Guide, HM Courts and Tribunal Services, United Kingdom. The guide recommends that elements of visual contrast, visual cues, appropriate acoustics, and lighting, etc., should be designed keeping in mind the needs of people with disabilities.

Similar standards and specifications are necessary to ensure conscious decision-making while designing, planning, and budgeting for court complexes in India. The specifications should not only be mandatory for newer builds, they must also make provisions for retrofitting existing buildings.

2. Bringing together the right experts

The power to sanction courts for the lower judiciary lies with the high courts. Even though the central government has been providing financial support through the CSS, the ultimate decision-making regarding allocation of land, granting permissions for the court complex, etc., are handled at the state government-level in consultation with the concerned high court. This has created a bureaucratic maze comprising the law department, finance department, Public Works Department, and court officials in every state.

The NJIC, as envisaged by the CJI, will have the CJI at its helm, along with Supreme Court judges who may be elevated as the CJI, high court judges with long tenures, and finance secretaries at the central/ state level. While this structure may be able to overcome some bureaucratic complications, a very crucial element that the corporation is missing is the existence of experts from professional disciplines.  There is an urgent need to appoint experts belonging to various fields such as spatial architects, accessibility experts, sound engineers, technology experts, etc., who may be able to guide the committee towards making the appropriate decisions to ensure that the courts built are future-proof and also to incorporate principles of accessibility.

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Moving beyond physical infra

While the setting up of the NJIC and the attention being provided to court infrastructure are all steps in the right direction, the CJI’s office must be cognizant of the fact that court infrastructure must move beyond the aspects of just brick and mortar. This post-pandemic judiciary must not only have physical spaces that are accessible to India’s diverse citizenry, it should also move towards adopting principles of universal design in all aspects of its functioning.

Shreya Tripathy (@ShreyaTripathy3is a Research Fellow with the JALDI (Justice, Access and Lowering Delays in India) Initiative at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. Views are personal.

This is the first of a four-part series of opeds and discussions on building a ‘Judiciary for the 21st Century’ with the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy, ThePrint’s knowledge partner. Read all articles on judicial reform series here.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

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