Emerging from the disruptions imposed by the lockdown, judiciary must embark on reforms
Supreme Court judges have hinted at a return to courtrooms from next week, with lawyers to argue remotely from their chambers. Forced to discontinue regular court hearings, the disruption over the past 50 days has been immense: Against 14.96 lakh civil and criminal cases instituted across India in February, new cases plummeted (dive) to just 88,561 in April. A few benches at the SC and various high courts and a limited number of lower judicial officers in districts have been hearing urgent matters like bail petitions, mostly through video conferencing.
With the coronavirus expected to linger for a long time the judiciary, like other institutions, will have to take the disruption in its stride. While a limited technological transition has been made with video conferencing, social distancing norms that could replace lockdowns may require greater adoption of technology. Court complexes are synonymous with large crowds. But solutions like e-filing of documents, live web-casting of courtrooms, recording online testimonies of non-critical witnesses etc can mitigate this situation to some extent. However, training court staff, prosecutors, lawyers, police and litigants (opponent) to use these technologies will be a challenge.
But this still doesn’t solve legacy problems like the huge backlog of cases in the system. The SC has over 60,000 matters pending, HCs have 48.18 lakh cases, and the total pendency including lower courts is 3.23 crore cases. With India on the cusp of multi-pronged correctional reforms to catalyse economic revival, tackling judicial backlogs will spell greater investor confidence. Economic Survey 2017-18 notes that average pendency of economic cases was 4.3 years and a whopping 6 years for tax cases at 5 major HCs. Filling judicial vacancies, exploring technology like AI as CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde recently promised, and focus on both qualitative and quantitative aspects of justice delivery could become part of judicial reforms that India badly needs.