2020 Summer Session Review: COVID Term 2

COVID-19 deeply impacted how the Court functioned. Which cases did the Court still hear, and how did technology change how they were heard?

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply impacted how society and institutions function. The Court too had to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic and determine the best course of action. Naturally, the Court suspended normal functioning and worked at reduced capacity on both administrative and judicial sides. In this two-part term review, we look back at two aspects: cases that were heard and the court’s reliance on technology to continue its operations.

Court turns to video-conferencing and e-filing

During the COVID-19 induced lockdown, the Court has turned to technology to continue operating. On March 22nd, the Court set up a Bench to hear ‘extremely urgent’ matters over video-conference. To ensure accessibility, it also set up a video conferencing room on its premises for lawyers and litigants who may not have access to the adequate infrastructure otherwise. By March 26th, it was strongly urging all advocates to make use of its e-filing system. Litigants can file all petitions and submissions through the Supreme Court of India’s web-portal.

In its latest ‘Standard Operating Procedure’ published on June14th, it standardized the system for the listing of cases. Using a combination of the Court’s official website and e-mail, the Registrar has gone completely digital.

In the spirit of keeping hearings open to the public, the Court has allowed a limited number of journalists to view hearings from its video-conferencing room.

Source: By msnetwerk licensed under Pixabay License

Is e-filing and video conferencing new?

The Indian judiciary has been undergoing gradual digitisation since the mid-2000s, primarily as a result of the National e-Governance Plan. Courts have recognised that going digital could result in greater efficiency and transparency and therefore have taken steps to modernize administrative processes through the use of technology. The judiciary’s plans to modernize have included building infrastructure to allow for e-filing and video-conferencing.

The Supreme Court cemented the importance of e-filing in 2005 when it published its first National Policy and Action Plan, which included a section on electronic filing. In subsequent years, the Supreme Court and various High Courts began introducing procedures for filing cases online.

However, up until the COVID-19 outbreak, very few litigants used e-filing. Consider, for example, the two High Courts perhaps most known for e-filing – Punjab and Haryana, and Delhi. In 2019, the SC E-Committee reported that the two courts combined saw fewer than a 1000 matters filed online. By contrast, in just the first six months of 2019, a combined 1.9 lakh cases were filed in these two High Courts. While the Supreme Court hasn’t publicly reported its pre-COVID-19 e-filing numbers, they are likely similar.

Much like e-filing, video conferencing has been around since the mid-2000s but was infrequently used till now. It first gained prominence when the Supreme Court held in State of Maharashtra v. Praful Desai (2003) that courts could record evidence over video-calls. Roughly a decade later, the E-Committee emphasised the importance of setting up video-conferencing in lower courts to conduct hearings of under-trial prisoners and record evidence. Beyond that specific situation, however, the Supreme Court rarely used video-conferencing to hear oral arguments.

How does this compare to other apex courts?

Many apex courts around the world have embraced digitization during the outbreak. The cross-section of courts we surveyed all had e-filing in place before COVID-19. However, with the exception of Canada and Singapore, none had standardized video-conferencing already in place.

As the head of the Supreme Court of India’s E-Committee, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud has hinted, the COVID-19 outbreak should serve as a catalyst for change. In other words, technological innovations brought about due to COVID-19 have the potential to modernize the Indian judiciary in the long-term. For example, the COVID-19 lockdown has served to stress test the e-filing system, by increasing the volume of documents being filed online. This may have forced the Registrar to troubleshoot key issues facing the online filing system. Proponents of digitisation will hope that this will accelerate the rate of digitatisation of the Indian judiciary.