It knocks on the doors of people's houses and hearts: Justice Gita Mittal speaks on the "Insaf ki Dastak" project

"It is very necessary that we look for unique solutions to provide for the unique problems that exist. Insaaf ki Dastak was our answer to the unique situation in Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh", Justice Mittal says.
It knocks on the doors of people's houses and hearts: Justice Gita Mittal speaks on the "Insaf ki Dastak" project
Justice Gita Mittal

Justice Gita Mittal recently retired from judicial service as Chief Justice for the common High Court for Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh.

Her tenure saw the launch of several laudable initiatives at the High Court, including the Insaf ki Dastak project inaugurated shortly before her retirement. Through this project, judges will travel to far-flung areas, which remain cut off due to harsh weather or difficult terrain, and decide cases at the people's doorsteps.

In this interview with Mohsin Dar of Bar & Bench, Justice Mittal speaks on the Insaf ki Dastak initiative, what inspired her to introduce this initiative, and more.

What is the Insaf ki Dastak initiative?

Justice Gita Mittal: This is an unprecedented step, not only for Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh; it has not happened anywhere else in the world. It is a step which is unique in itself. We have enabled the filing of cases by people using simple forms. They only need to fill a simple form, which is available in English, Urdu and Hindi. People can fill it by themselves or take the help of paralegal volunteers.

They will be able to communicate their grievances using the e-facilities in post offices or community service centres available in their localities. It can be done by fax or email. During COVID-19, we are seeing that people are even using WhatsApp to communicate with the court.

Nowhere in the world has the post office or a community service centre has been used for filling.
Justice (retd.) Gita Mittal

The court will hear them using the e-facility and the order which is passed by the court will be communicated in a like manner.

To facilitate filling, we have a parallel court service centre where e-communications and e-complaints will be received and put up before the judge for passing orders. So this is a unique step to assist people who cannot reach the court because of the climatic condition - where there is a 8-10 feet of snow and they cannot reach the nearest district court. This will help them in securing justice even though they cannot reach the courtroom physically to place a grievance before it.

When did you do you decide to take such steps in Jammu & Kashmir? Who/which departments helped you in bringing this initiative to fruition?

Justice Gita Mittal: When i came to Jammu & Kashmir in August 2018, the first thing I took note of was the need for accessibility to the court for the common man. You know, the basic mode of dispute resolution is court adjudication. If we are not able to ensure physical access to the court, we really don't have any meaningful justice delivery system. So, the first step I took was an audit of the places where courts are located and how far they were from villages.

In this audit, the Registry obtained information from all districts. The then State had 22 districts. We not only got information in terms of the distance of the village from the nearest court room but also the number of cases, and the geographical distribution of the cases. It was during the course of these enquiries and discussions that I found that there are so many places which were cut off completely from the mainstream. Helicopter services and air ambulance facilities were needed. So it was very necessary to take urgent steps.

There were two kinds of problems. One is that people would get cut off due to snow. The other is that people have to go 150 kilometres to reach the court. For those who are far from the court, we have started 11 camp courts. For those areas that get cut off, we have enabled e-filing through post offices and community centres.

You asked which department helped - one is the Indian Post, which is a very important department of the Government of India. The second is the common service centres, which are also part of the e-governance program of the Government of India. Without their help and cooperation, the initiative would not have been possible.

We had to amend the Rules of the High Court because it was a new program through which we are enabling the filling of cases outside the court complex. I don't think you would have ever heard of cases being filed in the post office or in a common service centre. So we have to maintain proper discipline and frame proper rules.

We did the Rules, I think, sometime in February 2019. The court staff, the staff of the common service centres, paralegal volunteers, and legal aid lawyers had to be trained. We had to train everybody on how to use all the equipment needed and the process to be followed. We have sensitized the judges also. We had done all of this almost a year before the inauguration.

In a program organised by the Department of Information and Public relating to the "Sakoon" initiative, you commented that Insaaf ki Dastak is one of the major steps taken in your career. Can you elaborate?

Justice Gita Mittal: In my 23 years of law practice and 16 years of judgeship, I have been sensitive to making justice accessible in every format, whether it be in terms of comfort with the legal procedures, whether it be knowledge of the way the case will move in the court, or whether it be the availability of a proper legal system for the litigants.

It has been my endeavour to ensure justice in real terms. We, the court of civil procedure and the court of criminal procedure, have two legislations, two statues, two laws, which guide how a case has to filed how it has to be tried, heard and how the judgment has to be passed. Following this standard procedure does not necessarily secure justice in every case.

What I am going to say is the subject matter of several studies and statements by psychologists, lawyers, and judges. Making victims in sexual violence cases follow the path in an ordinary court room really is the worst kind of traumatization. It is called secondary traumatization of the victim.

Where sexual violence cases are concerned, making victims in sexual violence cases follow the path in an ordinary court room really is the worst kind of traumatization.
Justice (retd.) Gita Mittal

If you're in an ordinary courtroom, you put the victim of sexual violence right next to where the perpetrator is standing - shoulder to shoulder - when she is testifying against the offender. We are asking her to speak about her worst experience in life.

I had worked on this in the Delhi High Court and I had found that following the ordinary procedure prescribed for doing a criminal trial actually causes grave injustice to the victim. After years of work there, I had evolved a vulnerable witness deposition complex program, in which we ensured that there is no interaction between a victim and the perpetrator.

We have inaugurated a similar court facility in the Srinagar district courts as well. We also have a facility for recording the testimony of victims of sexual violence.

Similarly, when a courtroom becomes inaccessible to a litigant because of the weather or distance, then again following the procedure and compelling the person to have to come to the court to file the case or seek a hearing before a judge really causes injustice.

Therefore, I have found that there are several instances where following a common procedure really causes injustice. The 'one size fits all' approach does not work in every case.

We have to find unique answers to the unique problems being faced by the litigants in remote areas that are cut off from the mainstream in every aspect. Similar problems must be existing in other parts of the country as well. Himachal Pradesh has several areas which are covered by high mountains. The northeast is covered by hills, up and down all over. There must be similar problems, though there may not be so much snow, but in terms of inaccessibility because of the distance and because of the natural terrain. Central India has such a thick forest that must be impeding access.

So it is very necessary that we look for unique solutions to provide for the unique problems that exist. Insaaf ki Dastak was our answer to the unique situation that exists in several parts of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. It is our answer to overcome the difficulties of the people of these areas.

Through this initiative, Insaaf ki Dastak, what will be your message for lawyers, judges and the common masses ?

Justice Gita Mittal: This is a program for the people, of the people, and has to be run and made successful by the people.

It is my request to everybody - all the stakeholders, the judges in the program, the paralegal volunteers, the legal lawyers, the persons managing the common service centres, the staff in the post office - give your total energy to ensure the system runs efficiently and the program succeeds in ensuring that justice really reaches the litigant's door steps.

It actually knocks on the door of people's houses and hearts. It becomes an integral part of daily life. There will be days and times when justice may not be available to them. It is said that there can be peace only if there is justice. Here is your chance to ensure peace to the family, to the community, to the people and to the region.

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