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Remote Access to Justice: A Positive Fallout from the Coronavirus Lockdown

The Coronavirus calamity has unwittingly showed us the way forward in mitigating pendency, in the long run.

DN Ray

I don't know how this will end for India or the rest of the world. We are all hoping that the current Coronavirus lockdown will flatten the curve and normalcy will resume as soon as possible.

When it does though, the burden of pendency in courts would have crept up ever so slightly. While I am certain that most of the added burden can be effectively managed by simply curtailing the summer vacation, the Coronavirus calamity has unwittingly showed us the way forward in mitigating pendency, in the long run.

Led by the Supreme Court, almost all courts have started videoconferencing to pass urgent orders and directions. For most judges, administrative staff and lawyers, it's a steep learning curve, but no doubt, everyone has embraced the technology wholeheartedly and with purpose. This back to the wall desperation and necessity has perhaps changed the face of litigation and the mode of administration of justice, forever.

Remote access to justice, as I would like to think of this videoconferencing process, should be embraced and made widely prevalent even after its immediate necessity ends.

The scope of justice on the tap, or justice on demand, just like ordering a meal on Zomato or Swiggy, is the future and the mode of decimating pendency at minuscule costs. It should be possible, in the near future, for a litigant to dial a hearing, immediately upon filing his case, without the agonizing wait that the system has often been infamously indicted for.

For this purpose, a centralized approved software needs to be in place. Matters like bail applications, cheque bouncing cases, rent disputes and other specified category of matters, which have burdened the courts, can be set apart for hearing through videoconferencing. With experience in the working of the process, the area of service in terms of jurisdiction can be widened.

A vast number of ad hoc judges can be conscripted for dealing with these matters on a war footing. There will be no infrastructure requirement for separate residence or courtrooms of these judges. They can work from their existing set up on their terminals and be given monthly remuneration or even paid on a case to case basis.

These judges, being in addition to and not in derogation of the regular strength, will only aid in disposal of the pendency. In our country, the retirement age for a district judge is 60, for a High Court judge 62, and a Supreme Court judge 65. Thus, mature and experienced professionals who have atleast a decade to contribute are ousted from the system due to efflux of time. Such personnel can be gainfully utilized in the process.

For example, a "judge" staying in Chennai can adjudicate an issue arising from Delhi where two sets of advocates may be residents of two other cities or towns. Geographical boundaries can be obliterated and massive transport and lodging costs borne by the litigants can be saved in the process.

Besides, the time of the hearing can be fixed with the consent of parties and the identity of the judge can be withheld till the last moment by the software to ensure 100% transparency and prevent any party from attempting to influence the judge (it's a terrible thing to say, but we are not an Utopian society).

Articles 128 and 224A of the Constitution permit appointment of ad hoc judges for the Supreme Court and High Court, respectively. Even though the Central government has resisted the suggestion of the Supreme Court, in the past, for appointment of ad hoc judges, citing the need to fill up listed vacancies first, the time has come to think completely out of the box and implement policies that are constitutionally viable and would stand to benefit the entire nation.

Fortunately, we are living in times when we have a dynamic leadership in the Supreme Court alongwith as many as four judges appointed from the Supreme Court Bar, and in general, a very progressive and modern set of judges, a fortuitous circumstance.

I am confident that the Supreme Court, in consultation with the Central government (followed by the High Courts in consultation with the respective state governments) will evolve a solid and sustainable mechanism of remote access to justice. This would be the greatest and most positive outcome from these apocalyptic times.

The author is an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court of India.

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