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In view of COVID-19, a commercial court case was heard entirely via Zoom for the first time in the United Kingdom. The multi-party proceedings which involved $530 million worth of assets were also livestreamed on YouTube. The judge, barristers, solicitors, witnesses, stenographers and interpreters took part from their respective homes.
Similarly, during the lockdown imposed by the Indian government, the Supreme Court of India is conducting hearings for urgent matters through video conferencing. Certain High Courts are conducting such hearings through the Zoom App, even allowing public access to the hearings.
Can COVID-19 be a turning point for the judiciary to avail of the progress made in technology to streamline systems and reduce the delays that have plagued India’s judicial process since several years?
Here are some suggestions to streamline the entire work stream in addition to electronic filing and hearings by video-conferencing, or by using an App, other than the actual conduct of the hearings and judging, which must remain the exclusive domain of judges.
Our legal system is largely process oriented. Computerization and software can therefore play a significant role.
Pleadings (plaint, petition, written statement, reply, complaint etc) can be standardized as per prescribed forms, having defined fields, as has been done under The Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, 2016. Thereby, there can be a restriction on the contents of pleadings to relevant facts and prayers, irrespective of which Court in India these are filed in.
The relevant fields would be the name and description of parties; email address of parties (and their advocates where applicable); cellphone number of parties; laws invoked, with sections and rules/regulations; judgements relied upon; rows and columns for the facts by date, place and description of the event; the legal averments on jurisdiction (territorial and pecuniary), limitation, court fees, other particulars as applicable; list of scanned documents/exhibits; reliefs (including costs); and interim reliefs.
Court fees can be paid electronically or even physically into a bank and a system-authenticated receipt can be generated and its proof annexed to the document being filed. Verification by the party can be done before a notary public, and this can also progress to system-generated authentication.
The verified pleadings/affidavits/notices can be emailed to the Court server, and a password can be generated by the system for each matter/filing in order to maintain confidentiality and ongoing access to the record by parties.
Service of pleadings, notices, judgments and orders can be automatically effected through the Court server, or by the parties, by email with SMS alerts.
The laws invoked and judgments listed in the pleading can be linked through software to relevant caselaw databases, which will enable all linked caselaw to be easily found, and can also allow bunching of cases involving the same laws/issues in order to avoid repeated hearings (including by different benches) of cases involving the same issues.
The fields for jurisdiction, limitation and court fees can be linked through software to databases of CPC, Limitation Act, and Court Fees Act, and programmed to throw up alerts when there is a lack of correlation suggesting non-compliance with the law.
Software can identify legible vs. illegible scanned documents, and throw up alerts appropriately on matters by comparing the text in the exhibit to the reproduced text in the pleading. It can also be used for translations of local languages into English for the higher judiciary.
Case management conferences can be held by the Court or the Registrar, depending on the nature of the matter. This, along with the marking of documents, recording of oral evidence, and arguments can be held over video-conference, on a secure and customized platform or a publicly available platform such as Zoom, Webex, GoToMeeting. Each such hearing can also be recorded, and can result in a transcript created through voice recognition software of what actually transpired at the hearing, which is often useful at a late stage of the proceedings.
Judgments/orders can be uploaded in the Court system and emailed to parties and an SMS alert can be sent to the cellphone number of the recipients intimating about such uploading.
The entire record can be accessed by the Appeal Court, and appeal memo and further pleadings (as may be permitted) need only be added instead of the entire record being copied.
Prints can be taken at any time by the court/parties should they wish. The parties that have affirmed/sworn pleadings and affidavits can maintain the originals with them, and be bound to produce the originals when called for.
As a further refinement, it is well-known that we understand and remember information much better when it is provided in both audio and visual formats. Business models being adopted by organizations across the globe are becoming increasingly elaborate and complex, and it would of great help if advocates could present the factual matrix and propositions of maters, particularly complex structures, to judges by using presentations instead of just pleadings.
To save time in lengthy arguments, judges can insist on written arguments within a defined number of pages, with oral hearings limited in time and intended primarily for clarifying doubts that the judge may have.
Finally, since an electronic record can be easily made accessible across geographies, a further dramatic change could be the exercise of Article 139A(2) of the Constitution, which states,
“The Supreme Court may, if it deems it expedient so to do for the ends of justice, transfer any case, appeal or other proceedings pending before any High Court to any other High Court.”
This provision can be invoked for cases of challenge on a point of law, which can be referred by the Supreme Court to a single High Court. This will address the problem of conflicting decisions on the same point across different High Courts that are, in any event, very likely to travel to the Supreme Court.
While some of the above may involve amending certain laws, it would be well worth the effort, given that it will minimize procedural differences in formats of pleadings and appeals under various statutes/rules (suit, petition, appeal, review, revision etc).
These are some of the potential applications of available technology that can be applied with a view to make our judiciary operate optimally as far as processes are concerned, without in any manner interfering with judicial control or decision making.
The author is the Managing Partner at DSK Legal.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are those of the author. This article is meant for information purposes only, and does not purport to be legal advice, or our opinion.
Please contact Mr. Anand Desai - firstname.lastname@example.org for any query you may have.