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Virtual Courts And Access To Justice: A Conceptualization

"The courts of this country should not be the places where resolution of disputes begins. They should be the places where the disputes end after alternative methods of resolving disputes have been considered and tried." -- Sandra Day O'Connor

Introduction
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only adversely affected the sustainability of lives of millions of people but also has hindered and obstructed a billion lives pinning one's hope and relying upon the court of law to shred justice and light to their lives. The Indian Judiciary took a step forward ensuring that no person is deprived of his right to access justice guaranteed and secured by the Constitution of India, and introduced virtual court proceedings.

The first virtual court of India was launched in Faridabad in the year 2019. Up to then rare attempts were made by the Indian Judiciary proportionally to convert the traditional courts into virtual ones.

The Supreme Court of India launched an application unveiled by the President of India, having the potential of effectively translating English judicial records into nine vernacular languages and vice versa, the Supreme Courts' bilingual application called "Supreme Court Vidhik Anuvaad Software" nurtures the user with access to real-time judicial data, statistics, case status, review screen, daily orders, and judgments, etc. Certain advanced developments such as capturing testimony by video conferencing etc have undoubtedly brought easement and efficiency in the means of the justice delivery system.

Virtual Courts: An Explanation

The concept and abstraction of virtual courts can be first traced back in the works of the Director of Centre for Legal and Court Technology, United States, Professor Frederick I Lederer, who in the year 1997 wrote:
A Courtroom is a place of adjudication, but it is also an information hub. Outside information is assembled, sorted, and brought into the Courtroom for presentation. Once presented, various theories of interpretation are argued to the fact-finder who then analyses the data according to prescribed rules (determined by the judge through research, analysis, and interpretation) and determines a verdict and result.

The Courtroom is thus the center of a complex system of information exchange and management. Ultimately because lawyers and judges deal continuously with 'data', high technology Courtrooms exist and Virtual Courtrooms are possible.

Virtual courts set one's sights on eliminating the participation of lawyers and litigants in the physical courts and the resolution of cases on a virtual platform or through digital mode. The whole procedure involving the initiation of legal proceedings is carried out through an electronic platform. The jurisdiction of virtual courts may extend to the whole of the country and is accessible and functional 24X7, which are primarily administered by judges.

It is to be noted, that neither the litigants, their respective representatives, nor the judicial officers are required to visit the court physically for initiation of proceedings and the whole procedure is to be carried out digitally. The judgments rendered, fine imposed, sentencing, etc. are to be practiced through electronic means of communication.

"These courts may be used for the disposal of cases where there may be proactive admission of guilt by the accused or proactive compliance of the cause by the defendant on receipt of the summons in electronic form. Such matters may be treated as disposed of after the payment of the fine."

The Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology defines virtual courts as "A facility that has been provided for Litigants to file the plaint electronically through e-Filing and also pay the Court Fees or Fine online. A litigant can view the status of the case also online through various channels created for service delivery."

India's Tihar jail undertook a project in past known as the Tihar Pilot Project, aiming to put forward an initiative to present and produce the prisoners in the court of law to initiate legal proceedings not via physical visits but through the facility of video conferencing and virtual hearing.

The constitution of India under Article 145(4), Section 327 of Code of Criminal Procedure, Section 153B of code of civil procedure incorporates and expresses the concept of the open court's system. Additionally, Article 19 of the Indian Constitution also enshrines freedom of speech and expression with freedom of press safeguarding activities of public attending trials and open for media house personals.

The proceedings of virtual courts involve:
  • Filing of plaint/other documents such as vakalatnama electronically.
  • Payment of court fees through online mode of payments.
  • Hearing of arguments and reasonings via video conferencing/ teleconferencing
  • Submission of evidence via a digital platform.
  • Rendering of judgments from the judges either through physical courtrooms or from some other place.
Scrutinizing the above points, we can thus sum up the concept of virtual courts by stating that virtual courts include revolutionizing documents, fulfillment of evidential and procedural mechanisms, and initiation of hearings and proceedings electronically. A copy of orders and judgments are made available after the conclusion of proceedings either on the official website or through any other digital platform as the authorities may deem suitable.

Virtual Courts & Litigation: An Analysis

India fundamentally functions and operates with three categories of courts:
Conventional Courts:
These courts necessitate the physical presence of judges, litigants, and lawyers, Conventional Courts primarily function through physical mode where they are located.

Online Courts:
In online courts, parties or the participants don't need to be present simultaneously for the hearing, the evidence and arguments are duly submitted to the judicial officers (judges), and proceedings are initiated. However, the judge or the judicial officer needs to mark his physical presence at court premises. Thus, online courts are considered to be the advanced versions of virtual courts.

Virtual Courts:
As discussed earlier, in virtual courts from the filing of the application to the rendering of the judgment everything completely functions through online or digital platforms. The proceedings in virtual courts are synchronous. From the electronic filing of documents, producing of witnesses, analyzing of evidence, and lastly, to sentencing or fine imposing procedure, everything is completely electronically based.

Unquestionably, the introduction and commencement of virtual courts in India have somewhere or the other filled the gap of ineffectiveness resulting in a time-consuming procedure of disposal of cases and disputes. This has not only strengthened and advanced the everyday operation of the Indian Judiciary but has also given hope to millions of lives seeking justice. It is to be noted, that a very considerate amount of people and sections from the society are completely capable of accessing physical court features, keeping in mind the cost everyone has to bear for the same.

Virtual courts in this regard came as an aid and boon for such sections of the society and have become a viable, effective, and efficient means to access justice from and to any part of the country. This has not only benefited the victims but also the lawyers, judges, and representatives to present themselves in any court of the country and dispose of the cases with immediate effect.

During his address in the launch of the Supreme court's Vidhik Anuvaad Software, the former Chief Justice of India Sharad Bobde expressed:
While technology has enabled us to go paperless in many courts and go digital, if not all the way then substantially, in many courts, we now have the benefit of modern artificial intelligence tools that will assist in improving the efficiency of our justice system through sophisticated and contextual automation of existing repetitive non-judicial tasks and functions to reduce pendency, expedite judicial adjudication and create more time for Judges to resolve complex cases.

A disciplined and structuralized management, viable features consisting of uncomplicated access to justice and litigation free procedure, cost-friendly and remote operative characteristics of virtual courts have resulted in the huge disposition of cases saving a large number of costs incurred in establishing new courts.

Several appellate tribunals such as Telecom Disputes Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) are already functioning as permanent virtual courts and do not require the parties or their legal representative to mark their physical presence.

As far as transparency of the cases and issues involved in the disputes are concerned it presents a much more clearer and transparent perspective of the judiciary as judges consume their respective times in analyzing each case even with lesser resources and more comfortability.

Scrutinizing The Advantages And Disadvantages Of Virtual Courts

The president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave opined the operation and functioning of virtual hearings as far from satisfactory and profoundly disappointing.

At this point, while examining the above discussion, we can conveniently enlist several advantages of virtual courts.

A few of them are as follows:
  • A cost-friendly and litigation-free means to access justice.

  • Parties do not need to mark their physical presence from time to time to the courthouse for judicial proceedings and can easily attend the same remotely.

  • Virtual courts are more convenient ways to dispose of the cases promptly due to structuralized and proper management.

  • Judges get more time to analyze and scrutinize the concerned issues from any part of the country to any court situated in the country.

  • The pending cases which are more than 30 million presently can be easily transferred to virtual hearings, hence lessening the burden on the Indian Judiciary.

  • The witnesses and victims in special reference to women and children will get a more safe, secure, and sound environment approach for testimony digitally which is way less distressing and disturbing than a physical court hearing.

  • Easy and convenient access to judgments rendered through digital mode or electronically.
  • The procedure of virtual hearing is a more transparent, fair process and gives a clearer perspective to everyone concerned with the dispute as it allows only an authorized person to extract relevant information and documents.

  • The convenience, effectiveness, and efficiency of virtual courts have derived its fundamentals from open justice which has not only restored the faith and hope of millions of lives seeking justice but has also ensured to preserve their right to privacy.

  • Despite resulting in an improved and advanced performance than physical hearing, virtual courts still seem to be far from reality in India. Considering the weaker sections of society and technological issues, virtual courts still have a long way to go in the justice delivery system.

Some obstacles and disadvantages of virtual courts are as follows:
One of the biggest concerns in regards to virtual courts is strong internet connectivity and the availability of compatible gadgets which are one of the most essential elements of virtually functioned courts. However, keeping in mind the majority of the rural population in India digitalization of courts yet seems too far from possible. This concern makes half the population access to justice uneconomic.

Literacy is also one of the biggest challenges faced by virtual courts. To understand the operation of virtual courts, it is very necessary for an individual to gain and inculcate certain technical skills and knowledge and to seek an appropriate infrastructure for it. However, considering variations in the population of the country it is still not possible for every individual to gain such complex knowledge to get access to justice.

The process of filing litigation is quite elaborative and complex. Although every procedure is carried out electronically it still involves many complexities and entanglements.

Another biggest challenge virtual courts are facing is the obstacle of leaking private data and being less secure. The procedure of virtual hearings involves filing documents that are private and confidential to parties and also to courts. Thus, securing one's confidentiality is a matter of concern as a single corrupt virus can attack can easily result in leakage of data.

With 25 High Courts and more than 500 district courts in the country, it seems to overprice and immoderate affair to digitalize the whole justice delivery system with proper infrastructure and systematic management.

How Effective And Sustainable Options Are Virtual Courts?

While addressing the problems faced by the advocates particularly, a representative of the bar stated:
As far as e-Courts and Virtual Courts are concerned, I can say with certainty and with an element of responsibility that in India, almost 50 percent lawyers, particularly in District Courts, do not have any laptop or computer facility. How can we assume and presume that they would participate in these Virtual Courts and e-Courts? So, infrastructure is a big issue in the functioning of Virtual Courts.

Critically analyzing the above discussions, virtual courts are undoubtedly sustainable, cost-friendly, and fundamental means to access justice irrespective of where the court is situated within the country. However, this being a modernist, newly arrived, and state of art initiative still needs a more advanced and wider approach towards its operation. Issues concerning leaking of data and sensitive information, privacy, and other such related issues need to be addressed with utmost strictness and rigidity.

Also, a solution for people specifically from a rural area who do not have access to strong internet connectivity, 24hrs. Of electricity, certain compatible strong gadgets to run the application needs some light. The need for enhanced effectiveness and efficiency to run the virtual courts with specialized skills, knowledge, and apprentices are some essential elements that need to be fulfilled.

With certain more advancements and developments in the structure of virtual courts, this new approach can unquestionably strengthen and authenticate the pillars of the Indian Judiciary. Digitalized hearings prevail over certain hurdles resulting in piling up of judicial cases such as distance, logistics, and costs and delays.

Conclusion
The Covid pandemic has not only affected the lives of people in terms of physical health but has also given a lot more tough times to lives which made it difficult for them to live sustainable. Nations pillars and their foundation were drastically affected due to pandemic following a country-wide shutdown. The introduction and initiation of virtual hearings is indeed a commendable and advanced step forward by the Indian judiciary which not only eases the justice delivery system but has also rendered hope and expectation that their wait and resources to seek justice will not go in vain.

The transformation of the Indian judiciary is worth hailing, but there are still certain lacunas and voids which need to fill and looked at with a different approach to take this initiation to heights. The covid pandemic is not over yet and the courts of the country are still in the process to adapt themselves to virtual hearings and their functioning's.

"There is a higher court than courts of justice and that is the court of conscience. It supersedes all other courts." - Mahatma Gandhi

References:
  • https://ecommitteesci.gov.in/service/virtual-courts.
  • https://rajyasabha.nic.in/rsnew/Committee_site/Committee_File/ReportFile/18/125/103_2020_9_16.pdf
  • https://www.legalserviceindia.com/legal/article-3211-virtual-courts-the-new-norm-.html
  • https://www.latestlaws.com/articles/virtual-courts-and-access-to-justice-a-step-forward-for-indian-judiciary

    Award Winning Article Is Written By: Ms.Anshika Singh
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