Access to justice is often centred on legal issues of accessibility for litigants rather than a discussion on the court’s physical infrastructure itself. Easy access to courts is very integral to a litigant and with growing pendency in the judiciary; expansion of related infrastructure is a long felt need. However, as one goes about doing the same, a long term scientifically thought out plan is the need of the hour; a plan which takes care of the increasing demands on judiciary without being unsustainable.
First order of business would be to upgrade facilities in the existing court structures. There are several beautiful pre-independence era court buildings dotting the country which require upkeep and maintenance. As this Live Law article points out, such heritage buildings though regal-looking from outside is sadly over-utilized and ill-kept from the inside. And instead of cherishing these structures through heritage conservation, they are slowly being ravaged by space and budgetary constraints. Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 2010 mandates that construction works in such recognized heritage buildings must not compromise on preservation, safety, security or access to the monument. Thus while bringing alterations to these heritage buildings so as to fit in with the modern requirements of sustainability, attention must be paid to preserving their historical value.
On the other hand, where increasing case load demands that new spaces be created, the new Supreme Court complex is a great example with its compliance to GRIHA (Green Rating for Integrated Habitat Assessment) rating on energy efficiency.
Given the global consensus regarding the need for climate resilient infrastructure, it is high time that the judicial infrastructure at the subordinate as well as higher levels adapt eco-friendly building practices. Such practices would indicate creation of structures which are environment friendly, disaster resilient and resource efficient in nature. Some of the inherent features of an eco-friendly design are as follows:
- Efficient use of air, water and other resources
- Protect human health and improve productivity
- Reduce pollution and waste
- Save money on operational costs
- Disaster proof
- Ecologically and aesthetically friendly design
- Energy efficient
- Use of cutting edge building material and recyclable materials wherever possible
Accordingly, the National Building Code, 2016 is appropriate to mention here since this is a Model Code to be used by all government agencies while investing into public infrastructure. The 2016 Code is especially mindful of the challenges posed by natural calamities. It includes provisions on the need to ensure structural safety through good quality construction; provisions on fire and life safety in case of emergencies; designs which are disaster resilient; use of bamboo, agricultural and industrial wastes including construction and demolition wastes without compromising the quality and safety; lighting techniques guaranteeing reduced energy consumption; air conditioning addressing zero ozone depletion potential; rainwater harvesting; solid waste management, among others. Thus, already existing infrastructure may need to be retrofitted or managed differently to attain ecological standards.
The policy mandates aspiring for eco-friendly judicial infrastructure can be found primarily within the National Court Management Systems (NCMS) Baseline Report on Court Development and Planning System which call for enhancement of IT infrastructure, reducing dependence on electricity and power requirements, need for a clear cut disaster management policy, among other things. The NCMS report also calls for the need to conduct a cost-benefit analysis from a social impact perspective. It would be interesting to conduct such an exercise from the environmental standpoint as well. Thus it is important that eco-friendly strategies for harnessing renewable energy, rainwater harvesting and greening of court complexes be adapted in the lower and higher courts.
Having said this, as is the case with all other forms of public infrastructure, non-availability of land for such expansions is a real concern. Further, while investing in new court infrastructure, the authorities must also be mindful of the nature of land and design of court buildings which fit in better with the locale, both aesthetically and without being too antithetical to the ecology of the region. In addition, a location which is too far removed for ordinary litigants to reach is not ideal. Massive behemoths structures which violate carrying capacity of an ecologically fragile area should be avoided at all costs. The Kerala High Court building is a case in point in reference to which a High Court Judge has once said that “Kerala High Court has no right to comment on environmental issues, as the High Court building is located at a place that could potentially harm an entire forest.”
As per Vidhi Center for Legal Policy’s report on Building Better Courts, there must be an ease on the requirement for built-up space through investment into the e-court system which would provide two-pronged benefits of environmental sustainability and easy access for litigants from far-flung areas. An e-court system would also entail reduced use of paper in court proceedings, which at the moment is a huge drain on available court space. Working websites also reduce the time, effort and resources spent by the litigant for availing information. Other important factors which ensure sustainable long term benefits for the stakeholders include facilities such as signboards for ease in navigation through court premises; comfortable waiting areas; hygienic restrooms; barrier-free access for the disabled; clean canteen and drinking water options; first aid, among others.
It is interesting to note that the National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms initiated by the Department of Justice, Ministry of Law is now looking into preparing a set of guidelines on eco-friendly, people-friendly designs and retrofit options for court infrastructure. To conclude, there are sufficient global studies to prove that the cost of investing in sustainable infrastructure is outweighed by the long term benefits that such infrastructure can provide. It is thus hoped that both central and state governments provide sufficient impetus to above-mentioned aspects in their court development plans.
Author is working with Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy.