Virtual Courts in India: A Strategy Paper

All Reports & Reports by Judicial Reform · May 1, 2020
Author(s): Deepika Kinhal, Ameen Jauhar, Tarika Jain, Vaidehi Misra, Aditya Ranjan and Chitrakshi Jain

Introduction

Unlike just a few months ago, the vision of virtual courts in India no longer seems audacious. The COVID-19 induced lock-down of courts has given a flavour of the potential that technology holds to address a key concern –access to the judicial system, and thereby, justice. Combined with process re-engineering and optimisation of court processes, the Indian judiciary, both in its physical and virtual form, is staring at a future with immense possibilities in innovation and resolution of some of its long standing problems. At this turning point in the Indian judiciary’s history, Vidhi’s strategy document hopes to provide decision makers and stakeholders perspectives on how to approach the mammoth task of technology integration and adoption in an extremely complex system. This document stresses on the need for a systematic and scientific approach to technology integration in the judiciary. The strategy document is influenced by three key realities of the system as they currently stand:

1. Its immediate needs to keep the system accessible

2. Partial advancements made under the e-Courts mission mode project and the need to leverage rather than abandon them

3. Abysmal adoption due to technology aversion and/or lack of capacity.

In this backdrop, the strategy paper identifies the following four actionable points in the immediate, medium and long term:

1. Journey from ODR platforms to Virtual Courts– Given that the existing ODR (Online Dispute Resolution) platforms are far more customised for the judiciary’s needs than any other ad-hoc solution that it has been forced to adopt, it is suggested that the judiciary invites functional ODR platforms to showcase their abilities and if found suitable, adopt them until in-house capacity is developed. Annexure A in the report contains a framework of guiding principles, concerns and system capabilities that the judiciary can use to test such platforms or any other technology offering under consideration. (Pages 9-11)

2. Steering Committee to evaluate solutions, standardise practices and institutionalise innovation- The current pandemic might finally nudge the judiciary in the direction of delineating administrative and judicial functions. The biggest shortcoming in the manner in which e-Courts project has been implemented is the lack of a permanent body to think, plan and act towards technology integration in a complex system such as the judiciary. The e-Committees have been dominated by judges with token representation from the registry and near nil representation from diverse domains of expertise such as technology, management, design and systems thinking, etc. The entire process appears to be opaque and non-consultative. The negative impact of such an approach is being seen and felt during the current pandemic induced lockdown of courts. (Pages 18-23)

It will take a few months at the very least for the judiciary to return to functioning at its earlier capacity. Therefore, virtual courts with e-filing and VC (video conferencing) facilities will have to continue to exist alongside physical courts. Therefore, it is suggested that a Steering Committee be set up to assist the judiciary in identifying sustainable solutions for its immediate as well as long term needs. Such a committee will have to holistically think about adoption of strategies, legislative amendments, technology infrastructure etc. that would be essential to make access to justice feasible and viable. (Pages 24-25)

3. Principles Framework: The need for a dedicated authority for modernisation of the judiciary through technology must be balanced with the judiciary’s uncompromising need for adherence to certain principles such as transparency, fairness, accessibility etc. To this end, the report lays down an elaborate principles framework on three fronts – legal, technology and design, and data. These provide the foundation on which any technology for the judiciary can be considered and built. This section also lays down an elaborate adoption framework to guide the implementation strategy. (Pages 26-33)

Virtual Courts in India: A Strategy Paper 2

4. Road-map towards Virtual Courts:A common factor in the e-Courts project implementation and the current pandemic induced technology adoption, is the lack of ‘systems’ thinking’ approach. Simply put, systems’ thinking is a holistic approach to analyse the manner in which a system’s constituent parts inter-relate and work over time, within the context of larger systems. To infuse systems’ thinking approach in judiciary, the strategy paper has given an overview of the judicial system along with branches within the registry which handle different stages in a case (mapped for a civil case). For each actor in the system to adopt any change, there needs to be a specific value or utility that they can derive through such a change.

Virtual Courts in India: A Strategy Paper 3While e-filing and VC hearing capabilities have been given primary importance, and rightly so, this paper engages in a scientific evaluation of these choices. Different capabilities across the life-cycle of a case are mapped against four parameters – urgency, impact amongst stakeholders, feasibility of technology and viability in adoption. This exercise has culminated in a prioritisation framework for the judiciary to gradually develop capabilities to realise the vision of an end-to-end virtual court. Further, through an example of e-filing, the various challenges in phased implementation for each such capability is illustrated.

The roadmap towards virtual courts also needs the setting up of a legislation backed authority to ensure the best of technology and the best of minds have a way of working for the unique needs of a complex system such as the judiciary without compromising on judicial independence. (Pages 34-40)

It is to be stressed here that the strategy paper does not dwell into the details of the technology that the judiciary can ultimately adopt. The paper, as the title suggests, identifies the components essential to strategically make such decisions to ultimately realise the vision of virtual courts in India.

Summary of online consultations on the draft paper held on 25th April, 2020 can be accessed here

Read and download the report here


About Deepika Kinhal:

Deepika Kinhal is a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi Karnataka. Her areas of interest are judicial reforms, women and child rights, and legal-technology. Since graduating from NLSIU in 2012, she has worked at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas (real estate and capital markets) and Dua Associates (litigation team). At Vidhi, she has undertaken independent and engaged projects studying court and case management systems across different levels of judicial hierarchy. Significantly, she has lead a team engaged by the J&K High Court to improve its court management systems. She considers tackling government litigation as one of the key ways of addressing judicial overload and is working with the Government of Karnataka in formulating litigation management policies for different departments. She is a co-founder of an online dispute resolution platform and has keen interest in legal-technology solutions for problems plaguing the judiciary and legal industry. She writes regularly in leading newspapers on topics related to the judiciary and women and child rights, and collaborates with other CSOs to conduct legal awareness campaigns. While not worrying about the state of the judiciary in the country, she sings and paints. She is a trained Carnatic singer with a brief stint at All India Radio and in Kannada movies.   


About Ameen Jauhar:

Ameen is a Senior Resident Fellow at Vidhi, and is leading advocacy for the JALDI mission, which is a collaboration between Vidhi and Tata Trust. His work at Vidhi deals with judicial reforms and access to justice issues in India. Ameen is interested in furthering evidence-based policy, following which he recently completed his master’s programme from the Institute of Education (University College London), focusing on the use of research evidence in policy processes, and was awarded an MSc. with an overall distinction. Before this, he completed his undergraduate legal studies from the W.B. National University of Juridical Sciences [B.A. LL.B. (Hons.)] in 2012. Prior to Vidhi, Ameen worked at J. Sagar Associates, in the firm’s regulatory and policy team. He has practised in the Supreme Court of India, the Delhi High Court, and numerous tribunals. Link to full bio


About Tarika Jain:

Tarika is a Research Fellow with the Judicial Reforms team. At Vidhi, she researches on gender representation, efficient budgeting and transparency in the judiciary with an empirical lens. Her areas of interest include law and economics, and governance. Tarika graduated from Gujarat National Law University with B.A. LL.B. (Hons.) in 2017. She has publications in peer reviewed law and social sciences journals and online platforms like Firstpost and Oxford Human Rights Blog. Prior to joining Vidhi, she was working for Gujarat State Petronet Limited, a state Public Sector Undertaking in the oil and gas sector where she was involved in various litigation and arbitration matters. She has previously interned with the Law Commission of India and Hon’ble Justice N.V. Ramana at the Supreme Court. Tarika is a pop culture enthusiast and enjoys watching anime and rockumentaries in her free time. Link to full bio


About Vaidehi Misra:

Vaidehi is a Research Fellow with the Judicial Reforms vertical. She has an affinity for large data sets and impact evaluation studies and is currently working on issues surrounding judicial capacity and transparency. She has a B.A.LLB. (Hons.) degree from Jindal Global Law School, Sonipat and an LLM from the University of California, Berkeley with a focus on jurisprudence and social policy. She has been published in newspapers and digital platforms such as the Hindu, Business Standard, Bloomberg Quint, the Wire and the Firstpost. She has been a substantive editor for the Berkeley Journal for Gender Law and Justice and a contributing author for a book on Sustainable Development Goals. She has previously worked in the chambers of Mr. Gaurab Banerji, Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court of India, assisting in landmark cases in the field of commercial law, arbitration, competition and constitutional law. Link to full bio


About Aditya Ranjan:

Aditya is a Research Fellow working with the Judicial Reforms and Environmental Law Team at Vidhi, Karnataka. He graduated from Institute of Law, Nirma University, in 2018. Prior to Vidhi, he worked in Jharkhand as a Policy Consultant for a regional political party, where he tackled issues pertaining to environmental law, forest rights, election laws and local self-government. He has previously interned with Newslaundry, Childline India Foundation, the Rethink Aadhaar Campaign and with Adv. Nitya Ramakrishnan. While working in Jharkhand he has authored a critique on the implementation of District Mineral Fund in the state. He enjoys collecting stamps and expressing himself through slam poetry.


About Chitrakshi Jain:

Chitrakshi is a Research Fellow with the Judicial Reforms vertical. As member of the vertical she has worked on issues such as judicial funding, transparency in the judiciary and other aspects that affect the functioning of the institution. Her areas of interest include public institutions, urban governance and governance of Scheduled Areas. A 2014 graduate of NALSAR, Hyderabad she was working as a research associate for Centre for Social Justice, Ahmedabad prior to joining Vidhi. Interested in pursuing research that lies at the intersection of law and social sciences, she completed her Masters in Politics from the University of Delhi and is currently also pursuing research at the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, JNU on urbanisation and governance.