The e-committee of the Supreme Court has released a draft proposal prepared by an expert panel of the vision documents for the third phase of the e-Courts project, which highlights various key goals, including open digital hearings like live-streaming and providing transcriptions of court proceedings to lawyers and litigants. The e-panel of the top court has put the vision document for phase III on its website and invited inputs, feedback and suggestions from various stakeholders, including lawyers and the public.
The Supreme Court's e-committee, headed by Justice D Y Chandrachud, comprises experts including judicial, legal and information technology (IT) experts overseeing the e-Courts project conceptualised under the National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology in the Indian Judiciary-2005.
The expert panel has said the third phase of the e-courts project is rooted in Mahatma Gandhi's talisman and that the continuing endeavour of the judiciary in independent India has been to provide expeditious and inexpensive access to justice to citizens.
"Phase III must strive for a modern judicial system, governed by core values of trust, empathy, sustainability and transparency, which maximise the positive of technology and minimise its risks and challenges," the panel said in its 86-page document.
It said the digitisation efforts should ensure that the constitutional and legal rights accorded to individuals, of dignity to life, liberty, equality, freedom and fraternity are guarded and secured and they should enhance the trust and ability of the legal system to secure the rights of individuals.
Giving an example, it said, "Live-streaming of sharing recorded court proceedings can enable courts to become more open. Similarly, leveraging technology to enable transcriptions of court proceedings can enable courts to realise their full potential to become courts of record."
The document said the third phase has various key goals, which include ensuring the installation of relevant hardware, creation of digital infrastructure (digital case registry, repository of case laws, Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS) and other services.
Among other services, the panel has suggested for the creation of a digital case-management system, open digital hearing and providing technology-enabled transcriptions to lawyers and litigants.
It said enabling seamless and inclusive digital hearings will be key to minimise the travel costs of litigants and lawyers, thereby increasing access to justice and reducing environmental costs.
"Different forms of digital-enabled hearings must be explored for diverse use cases. Certain proceedings may require to continue with in-person hearings, while others may explore possibilities of asynchronous hearings, purely digital hearings, audio-only linkages where necessitated or even virtual courts," it said.
The panel said, "Digital hearings should also be supported by efforts to make the hearings public and the process transparent. This can be achieved either through live-streaming of hearings or where that is not possible, by making records of the proceedings freely accessible to ensure that courts retain the 'open courts' principle."
It further suggested that digital transcriptions of court proceedings are key to building trust and transparency in the system and it will provide a precise record of what was said in court and help lawyers and litigants plan their trial plans or appeals, understand the decision, use the transcription as evidence or share it with the litigants, who were not present.
"Phase III will prioritise providing lawyers and litigants with technologically-enabled transcriptions of court proceedings from audio or a spoken format into a typed digital format immediately with the order," it said.
The panel said COVID-19 has amplified the need to strengthen digital capabilities and provided the stepping stone to an unprecedented opportunity for change.
"But such a change cannot be achieved without adopting a radically different approach from that adopted in phases I and II, while building on its foundations," it said.
The e-Courts project was launched in 2005 to digitise the judicial administration process across approximately 19,000 courts in the country.
The first and second phases of the project were launched with an overall budget of around Rs 639 crore and Rs 1,670 crore respectively, enabling the creation of infrastructure, systems and services for judges, lawyers and litigants.