Virtual Court during the pandemic: A Boon or Bane  

The concept of the virtual world seemed to be a far-etched concept just a decade back. True, that the internet service had been initiated by then but the fast speed of the internet and the constant supply of net by its service providers was a mirage in most of the households. Can we ever forget the uncalled buffering, and impatient waits that we needed to undergo for watching a video on YouTube, or the extremely slow pace of Facebook?

The operation of Instagram via cell phones was a dream that we never dreamt of. And the concept of smartphones was restricted to the hands of the super-rich. From 2012, an evolution started taking place and the availability of smartphones increased. In fact, the availability of smartphones became inversely proportional to their prices. The main motto was to connect the entire world, make the entire world a single unit with the help of the smartest of technologies and sharpest of applications.

The developers of these applications, having the greatest of minds in the field of technology, felt the immense need of introducing fast-paced internet services not only in the developed countries but also in developing and underdeveloped countries. In India, the system of 3G internet service was first launched in 2008 in Delhi followed by Mumbai by the Government-owned Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd or MTNL.

This was a renaissance in the field of technological evolution and also in the daily global world. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the web, just like its name suggests, he wanted to connect people of one corner of the world with the other. And now, with the introduction of the 3G scheme, it meant a faster and stronger connection.

In 2012, another boon came- the introduction of the 4G scheme in Kolkata, India and it was launched by Bharti Airtel. Since then there has been no looking back. From free net services, unlimited packages, free wifi service to uber-fast internet schemes- Jio, Airtel, Idea, and various other service providers have ensured a stronger connection in the virtual field. From booking cars to paying bills the internet has performed wonders on the global stage.

So far so good. Then came 2020- the entire world was hit by a devastating pandemic. Even after 18 months, its effects have not yet completely diminished. Being a highly contagious virus the only option to stay safe from contracting the virus was to be restricted within the houses. But soon people realized if everyone collectively stayed within houses, what about the daily trade, commerce, service, education, conventions, global affairs so on and so forth. The economy is one of the most important sectors in every nation. And with the ongoing condition, it seemed the economy was to come to a static state- something which was extremely destructive and could have a far-reaching effect on the global population.

So once again the much-needed hand of help was forwarded by the technological sector who opined that if not in a real-world, the entire transactional activities could be operated using the virtual world. While applications like Grofers and BigBasket were already in force, their use increased manifold times. The services of Swiggy became much more frequent. The number of Zomato delivery was affected. In order to increase its investment, it started delivering medicines and essential commodities in various places.

The most wonderful inventions were the virtual classrooms. MS Teams proved to be an excellent model of the classroom as well as that of office meetings. But none could actually think that even the courts may become virtual in nature.

Virtual Courts-an outcome of mission mode project

Virtual Court during Pandemic

As early as 2006, the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology approved of a project which was hailed as the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP), comprising of 27 Mission Mode Projects (MMPs) and 8 components. Following this approval, 4 other Mission Mode Projects namely ‘Education’, ‘Health’, ‘Posts’ and ‘Public Distribution System’ were added to the NeGP portfolio in 2011. However back then, no initiation of this project took place.

It was in 2015 that for the very first time, the Union Government introduced e-Kranti for fulfilling the motto of Transforming e-Governance for Transforming Governance. Several MMPs were laid down under the e-Kranti scheme, one of them being e-courts. In 2013, the then Hon’ble Chief Justice of India launched the e-Courts National portal. No e-courts were initiated.

The e-courts portal operates on the basis of two phases. While Phase-I comprises of  Court Complexes, Computer Server Rooms and Judicial Service Centres, District and Taluka Courts; the Phase-II of the concerned portal provides for “cooperation between the e-Committee, the Department of Justice (Government of India), NIC, DietY, and Ministry of finance”. In 2016 the first e-court was opened to represent the High Court of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh for mitigating cases in relation to the criminal justice system in an integrated manner.

In 2019, another e-court was also initiated at Faridabad to deal with traffic challan cases across the states. The project was launched under the vigil of the e-court committee of the Supreme Court of India. However, this system of disposal of cases was never considered to be a primary form of justice. It was mostly a subsidiary form where the aim of the court was to dispose of excess cases that were lagging in the concerned High Courts and District Courts and to bring forth a system where the litigant and counsels will not be required to pay enormous traveling costs to visit the courts for few hearings. But when the pandemic struck the world and footfall were completely banned in the courts, this system of e-courts gained absolutely new prominence and dominance in the world of justice. It was as if the system of e-courts that was to some extent subdued by the glory of real courts, found a new horizon.

Efficacy of Justice Via E-courts

The system of virtual courts is undoubtedly a boon in the post-pandemic period. But the main question that has cropped up time and again is to what extent they have been helpful in disposing of pending cases and whether or not all the courts that are functioning under the hierarchy of judicature are able to access the portal. As the e-courts portal suggests, the list of courts that has access to it includes the Supreme Court, the High Court, the District Court, and the Taluka Court- which basically indicates that all other lower courts barring the above-mentioned courts do not have any access to the electronic justice system. This is a huge setback in the judiciary.

Most of the cases have to follow a one-way track of being filed in the lower court and appealed before the higher courts. With the courts being closed and the portal being unavailable to them, the situation is such that these cases cannot be filed at all. This further indicates that a fairly major section of the population will not be able to get their required justice mechanisms.

Apart from this, the greatest loss will be for the legal counsels and clerks whose earnings are heavily dependent on their cases which they fight in the lower courts. Another challenging factor that has cropped up is that most of the Courts deal with emergency cases only in their virtual hearing sessions. Numerous reasons have been attributed to the concerning factor. Moreover, a Court operates owing to the functioning capability of a vast range of people- the Judges, the legal counsels, the clients, the court staff, the secretaries, and many more.

Subtraction of any of the above-mentioned categories will lead to a complete crumbling of the legal sector. Often several of the court staff do not have the ability to avail of fast net service or even internet alone. As a result of their absence, many of the cases cannot be dealt with judiciously. In criminal cases, where the convicts are required to be brought before the Judges, the latter decide the cases on the basis of the evidence submitted by both parties. The public prosecutor is empowered to ask questions to the convict. But all these factors cannot be fulfilled when it comes to a virtual hearing. As a result, the efficacy of the justice system decreases.

Moreover, there are often chances of cyber-frauds that may be committed by notorious parties. In one of the recent instances where Ms. Juhi Chawla had filed a suit in relation to the 5G scheme, a certain man invaded the system and started singing until he was removed from the court proceedings.

These kinds of nuisance have become common to proceedings thereby disrupting a stringent discipline that is applicable to the Court Systems. On the other hand, there have been several silver linings in the virtual court proceedings. One of them being these proceedings are extremely environment friendly and ecologically sustainable full stop the reason being that in normal code for serious going to the numerous litigations of day to day proceedings huge amount of paper was required full stop starting from the filing of the case to the presentation of the contentions of each of the parties and the judgment each and every step was fulfilled using paper.

As a result stance and stance of paper were being utilized for the court proceedings. But now going to a virtual hearing method Court filing and even the judges are now being published on the Bottles. And a result of which the use of paper has become completely obliterated. Another important highlight is that in the cases where the litigants had to travel from far across the country or even different corners of the world in order to 5 their respective cases with the ongoing virtual proceedings they can easily sit in their respective areas and be a part of the court proceedings.

CONCLUSION

Just like every coin has two sides, every occurrence and phenomenon has a pro and a con. Similarly, the transition from the normal Court proceedings to the virtual hearing method has resulted in both benefits as well as adversarial conditions for the entire justice system. The one factor that has helped in all the cases is the availability of the internet. But only if internet service can be provided and be made available to the remotest areas of the country only then the entire population will be benefitted through the mode of virtual hearing. It will definitely be beneficial for the people, the society, and the entire justice system.

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