The sudden outbreak of the pandemic has led to a significant impact on the judiciary throughout the country. All the courts were suspended, and as a result, trial proceedings were put on halt. Therefore, virtual courts were introduced so that there is no infringement of human rights and people are not denied justice. In this article, we will discuss what virtual courts are, how many virtual courts are there in India, Virtual courts and access to justice, their prospects and challenges, the advantages and disadvantages of virtual courts, the effect of virtual courts on witness credibility, is virtual court hearing a fundamental right.
What is Virtual Court?
Virtual courts are online courts where judicial proceedings are conducted without being physically present. The virtual court enables us to conduct court proceedings using video conferencing and teleconferencing methods, submit the documents, evidence, etc. in a digital format, regular cause lists, case status, case filed and case reported through the Case Information System (CIS) program.
In virtual courts, all the advocates, litigants, witnesses, and judges must simultaneously be at the hearing. The judge is furnished with the plaint and evidence in the presence of the parties to the suit.
Virtual Courts were first adopted in Faridabad in 2019. On 26th November 2019, the President of India launched an application called “Supreme Court Vidhik Anuvaad Software,” which can translate English judicial records into 9 vernacular languages and vice versa.
E-Challan Virtual Courts
Virtual courts were also introduced by the eCourts project to deal with petty traffic offence cases. It is managed by the judges virtually, whose jurisdiction is extended throughout the State. Moreover, it saves time, and human resources as neither judge nor a litigant are required to be physically present.
The litigants can file their plaint virtually through e-filing and pay the court fees or fine through pay.ecourts.gov.in. They can also check their case status through their respective state’s online portals. Approximately 1.79 Crore cases have been handled by 21 virtual courts, and of more than 27 Lakhs cases, fine of more than Rs. 284 Crores has been collected online till 2.08.2022.
How to file E-challan through MumTrafficapp?
Firstly, download the “MumTrafficapp” application, then follow the given steps:
MumTrafficapp: Enter your mobile number to log in > Go to My E-Challans> Make a payment on E-Challan Payment enter all the details such as Vehicle Number, 4 digits of Chassis/Engine No. > you can also raise grievances for wrongly booked challan or any payment issue.
How many Virtual Courts are there in India?
Till 2.08.2022, there are 21 virtual courts in 17 states and union territories, namely, Delhi, Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Meghalaya, Odisha, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Maharashtra, Kerela, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.
Virtual Courts and access to justice
Access to justice is a constitutional right and hence cannot be denied. (Anita Kushwaha Vs. Pushap Sudan, 2016). The virtual courts give easy access to all from the comfort of their home.
Virtual Courts prospects and challenges
As a part of the National e-Governance Plan, an Integrated Mission Mode Project was implemented in 2007. It was based on the National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in the judiciary in 2005. It was a pan-India project introduced to transform the Indian Judiciary through ICT. The Department of Justice and Ministry of Law and Justice monitored and funded this project across the country.
The e-Court project aimed at faster delivery of justice, reducing the burden of pending cases before the courts, reducing delays and difficulties of ordinary litigants, and thereby building people’s trust in the Indian judiciary.
The e-Court project has digitalized the judicial system by enabling e-filing, tracking cases online, uploading judgments online, and easy exchange of information between various branches of the State; such as between the police, judiciary, and the prison systems, through the Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS). It has also helped develop National Service and Tracking of Electronic Processes, enabling e-summons delivery.
E-courts were introduced as a development prospect, but they soon became necessary during the pandemic. As there was a nationwide lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19, the Supreme Court and High Court had prompted to hold a virtual court hearing so that people are not denied justice.
The Supreme Court should ensure that the virtual courts do not violate the privacy standards set forth by the Supreme Court in Puttaswamy Vs. Union of India, 2017.
The digitization of the judicial system has enabled faster delivery of justice. However, there are aspects of concerns that are associated with these advanced technologies; these are;
Data theft: As there is no data protection regime in India, collection and sharing of data is a significant challenge that can lead to data theft, online harassment, and cyber security theft.
Targeted surveillance: Localised data is collected by the Ministry of Home Affairs and is taken as targeted surveillance by the government.
Virtual courts have been adopted by several judicial and quasi-judicial institutions throughout the country. And those institutions that have adopted the virtual courts have only used them for particular matters such as hearing and disposing of urgent or extremely urgent matters.
Technological issues: The major challenge that a digital court platform faces is the digital literacy among the people, obsolete audio-video equipment, accessibility issues, and lack of power backup. Addressing and solving these challenges would lead to a substantial financial burden on ICT.
Implementation issues: In virtual trial proceedings, there will be enough scope for false testimony, fraud identity, and evidence.
Access to a court hearing – Open access to court hearings was not possible at these virtual courts’ hearings. However, in several cases, the Supreme Court has upheld the importance of open access to court proceedings to the public to preserve the courts’ integrity, efficiency, and fairness. Hence, the Supreme Court has recognized the importance of live streaming of court proceedings for people interested in attending the hearings in Swapnil Tripathi Vs. Supreme Court, (2018).
Use of Technology in Judiciary
The technology used in the Indian judiciary is –
- Virtual Hearing – helps in e-filing and virtual hearing.
- Supreme Court Vidhik Anuvaad Software (SUVAS) – translates the judgments into various regional languages.
- Supreme Court Portal for Assistance in Court Efficiency (SUPACE) – encapsulate (summarise) the judicial process into automation through AI, thereby improving efficiency and reducing pendency by assisting the court.
Virtual Court’s advantages and disadvantages
The advantage of virtual courts are as follows –
- Minimize or remove the need for travel: As the virtual courts are online, there is no need to travel to another place. Thus, it saves or minimizes the time for travelling to court and other inconveniences.
- Cost and time effective: As there is no need to travel, it reduces travel costs and saves time for the people involved. For instance, if a case is being rescheduled or postponed, you do not have to wait on the court premises for your turn. You can easily remain in the comfort of your home. Additionally, you do not have to wait for other cases to finish. Your case will be scheduled at a fixed time, so you can log in at that time.
- Flexibility: the service of virtual courts is available 24 hours and seven days a week, so the parties can file their application at any time without leaving their work. The parties can attend the court proceeding only when required, as there is no need for lawyers and parties to gather in a single place. So, parties can even join the virtual court hearing from their place of work.
- Video-conferencing: through video-conferencing, the virtual hearing efficiently replicates the in-person hearing as it has interacted between the counsel and tribunals. This shows more significant access to justice as the people are familiar with video conferences on their phones. Additionally, even the witnesses are comfortable during the virtual court hearing as it is less personal.
- Transparency – a virtual court will bring about clarity and better management of the judiciary. People can see how the court functions and how their lawyers participate in the court hearing work from the comfort of their homes.
Just like every coin has two sides, virtual courts have many advantages and benefits, but they also have some disadvantages. Let us have a look at the detriment of virtual courts,
Firstly, as in virtual courts, there is no physical courtroom, so it is difficult for judges to control the virtual hearing. The judges may not know what is going on behind the camera.
Secondly, it is also difficult to enforce the rules in virtual courts. For example, you cannot isolate the witness from others like in the case of physical courts, where you can keep the witness outside the courtroom till it’s time to testify.
Thirdly, in virtual court proceedings, there are possibilities that information such as medical reports, psychological evaluations, etc., given during trial can be hacked.
Lastly, the physical court has some etiquette and manner that a lawyer should follow. These etiquettes, interpretation of laws, and the way the judges read those specific laws cannot be observed and learned through virtual courts.
Effect of Virtual Courts on witness credibility
Witness credibility can be checked by scrutinizing him personally and observing his reaction while answering the question. However, in virtual courts, this is not possible. The judge cannot understand the witness’s body language, hesitant expression, and gestures while answering the questions. In addition, there is a risk of witnesses being tampered with or coached through a text message or other dishonest means. Witnesses can even hide essential facts or change their statements.
Is Virtual Courts hearing a fundamental right?
A plea was filed by the All India Association of Jurists, challenging the decision of the Uttarakhand High Court to resume the physical court hearing without any hybrid option. The plea stated that denying access to the virtual hearing would amount to denying fundamental rights under Article 19 (Freedom of speech and expression) and 21 (Right to life and personal liberty) of the Indian Constitution. It further stated that the Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh, Bombay, and Kerala High Courts were not providing joining links for attending the courts virtually.
The Supreme Court allowed the plea, ordered the cases to be listed and upheld that the virtual court hearing is the fundamental right guaranteed by the Constitution.
With the advancement of technology, the Indian judiciary is all set to promote and accept the automated system of hearing cases and proceedings, thereby speeding the disposal of cases, reducing the burden of pending cases, and handling the case lists effectively. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud stated that virtual courts will not replace or replace physical courts. There should be some standard or procedure followed by all the courts throughout the country (including e-filing). A new e-filing module will be launched in the future, which will majorly change the submission of cases filed before the Supreme Court. This module will provide personalized information to the advocate on records, such as a case list, lawsuits filed by them, pleadings filed by them, and others in cases where they appear. This service is available 24 hours a day, i.e., the advocate can file their lawsuit at any time and on any day, whether the registry is working or not. Automated courtrooms cannot replace open court hearings.