How green are our courts and lawyers?

What steps can lawyers and courts take to reduce the carbon footprint of the justice delivery system?
LawyersImage for representative purposes

The role of courts in the sphere of environmental protection is well known. The constitutional courts have evolved new jurisprudence and enforced global principles in cases such as TN Godavarman and MC Mehta.

The courts have increasingly and effectively taken protective measures to prevent environmental degradation by private actors and to check State actors from showing undue generosity in the distribution of natural resources for exploitation by private players in the name of development.

However, the present article does not seek to dwell on these aspects. Instead, it focuses on the steps that courts and other stakeholders in the justice delivery system can take to bring about a reduction of the carbon footprint of the justice delivery system. After all, as interested and informed participants in a world that is witnessing a rapid decline and depletion of natural resources, we ought to do what we can to minimize the impact of our actions on the environment, individually and collectively.

There are principally three areas that can be looked at to achieve this objective.

Historically, the courts have been one of the largest consumers of paper. This needs to change.

i. Various courts follow a standard practice of requiring all papers that are being filed to have a margin of at least 1.5 inches, font size 14 with double spacing, with only one side being used for printing and the other side of paper being blank. While some of the courts in the southern part of the country do not follow this pattern and use both sides, with lesser margins and spacings, this practice needs to be encouraged in courts across the country. Simply put, the practice of printing on both sides of paper will halve the demand for paper.

ii. It has become a standard practice in the appellate courts to file the entire record of the case that was contested in the court below and from where the order under challenge has emanated. Again, this is a needless exercise and can easily be done away with by directing on the administrative side the production of the entire trial court record. This record can easily be transmitted from the courts below in digital form without having to undertake the cumbersome task of physical transfer of a file.

iii. Service of documents and pleadings on the opposite party must be permitted via email. Similarly, all filings and submissions whether through the registry of the court or during the court proceedings must take place via email.

iv. A discussion with any of the older lawyers will invariably lead to nostalgic references to the earlier days when pleadings were concise and crisp. This is not to say that the lawyers of the previous generations were much wiser, more intelligent, or had a better command of the language. This was, in great measure, on account of the fact that most of them did not have the benefit of computers, which enable the production of pages upon pages of pleadings. More often than not, these are unduly repetitive and unnecessary. Precedents are quoted and portions of judgments and statutes are generously reproduced solely because its easier to do that today than to summarise the ratio in a paragraph in your own words.

Any change in this regard of course will need to be more of a self-imposed limitation, although in some courts, all pleadings are restricted by a word count that must be observed. The Rules of the Supreme Court of the United States, for exampl,e provide for a word limit for pleadings and require a certification to the effect that the word limit has been maintained.

Virtual hearings can cut the environmental cost of travelling

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the courts to adopt technology and switch to virtual hearings. Had it not been thrust upon us, this change would have taken place at least a generation later. Yet, very strangely, there is stiff opposition to the continuation of hearings through virtual mode from among certain sections of the Bar. This is unfortunate. It must be remembered that advocates have been the torchbearers of change and have strived to adapt to any and every challenge faced by them. We must, as a community of participants in the justice delivery system, seize this opportunity lest history judge us for letting it go.  

Compared to other cities, Delhi has the largest number of courts in the country, and consequently the largest population of practicing lawyers. A system of virtual hearings would reduce the strain on the limited resources and infrastructure. The struggle of the average lawyer would lessen, whether it is the compulsion of having to commute long distances to reach court complexes, or the continuous jostling for office space because one has to remain present physically available through the day in the vicinity of court complexes.

Litigants, on the other hand, can participate and contest their cases across the country without the need to travel and remain physically present. Lawyers can represent the clients across the country. Once again, there would be no need to travel. The litigant will therefore need to expend fewer resources for availing of legal representation. This is apart from the fact that they may be more comfortable with a lawyer from their own area who understands their language even though the case has to be fought in an entirely different part of the country. More importantly, apart from the litigant and the lawyer, the courts themselves would become available and accessible to all without the need to create circuit benches etc.

Green costs

Of late, there has been a very interesting and innovative development in the administration of justice that has actively led to the improvement of the environment and replenishment of natural resources in the capital.

Conventionally, courts would impose fines or costs on delinquents and defaulting parties. These costs would either be paid to the opposite party or more often than not, to some fund or the other, either for the welfare of advocates or towards charity.

In the past few years, however, the Delhi High Court in particular has, instead of imposing costs on a delinquent or a defaulting party, resorted to issuing directions for plantation and maintenance of trees in specific and identified areas of the city.

In fact, the High Court has gone forward with this initiative in a more broad-based manner, issuing such directions from time to time in cases before it even without there being an identifiable defaulting individual. For example, the settlement of a matrimonial dispute was concluded with directions to the parties to ensure the plantation of some trees in an identifiable area to bring about closure.

On account of this practice being followed consistently by one judge alone in the last four years or so, three lakh trees have been planted over various barren stretches in Delhi. By virtue of these orders, thousands of saplings greet visitors at the Central Ridge reserve forest, where two new areas have been designated for planting trees named “Maaufi Bagh” and “Insaaf Bagh” i.e. the Garden of Forgiveness and Garden of Justice.

On account of continuous monitoring through judicial orders, these areas in Delhi have become green, oxygen-producing centers for a city that is always short of fresh and clean air and has achieved the dubious distinction of being regularly ranked as one of the most polluted cities in the world.

Kirtiman Singh is an Advocate practicing in the Delhi High Court & Kunwar Varun Pratap Singh is a Final Year Law Student at Bennett University.

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