Traditionally, bundles of files and papers in the courtroom have always been a symbol of knowledge and wisdom for centuries and accessible to a select few. However, in the contemporary digital age, technology has increased transparency, breaking the confines of legal knowledge within the physical courtroom. In his book, "The Future of Law," Richard Eric Susskind foresaw technology revolutionizing the legal field and transforming the court system. The ongoing technological revolution in the judiciary is evidenced by the e-Courts mission.
The sub-committee, appointed by the e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India, formulated a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for scanning, storage, and digitalization of court records. This SOP, endorsed by the Supreme Court e-Committee under Chief Justice DY Chandrachud on October 21, 2022, was directed for implementation in all High Courts and District Courts by the Supreme Court division bench led by Justice Krishna Murari and Justice Sanjay Karol vide order dated April 24, 2023.
The significance of technology in the legal domain was acknowledged in the late '90s with the enactment of the Information Technology Act, 2000. The e-Courts Mission, initiated in 2006 as part of a nationwide electronic governance initiative, aimed to enhance the judiciary's technological capabilities. Collaboratively conceptualized by the Department of Justice and the e-Committee of the Supreme Court based on the "National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) in Indian Judiciary – 2005," the e-Courts Project Phase II focuses on the digitalization of court records for online accessibility.
Several milestones have been achieved in integrating technology into the judicial process, including the computerization of 18,735 district and subordinate courts. The Case Information Software (CIS), Supreme Court Portal for Assistance in Court’s Efficiency (SUPACE), and Supreme Court Vidhik Anuvaad Software (SUVAS) are examples of technological tools introduced to make all relevant case details readily available and easily accessible. The National Judicial Data Grid, established with elastic search technology, provides easy access to millions of cases, orders, and judgments.
The judiciary also embraced video conferencing, particularly during the pandemic, with notable cases such as Salem Advocate Bar Association v. Union of India (WP No. 496 of 2002) utilizing this technology. The usage of video conferencing saw a massive rise during the pandemic period. The district and subordinate courts heard 2,01,57,517 cases through video conferencing since the start of the lockdown. High courts and the Supreme Court heard 78,82,514 and 4,82,941 cases respectively using video conferencing.
In 2018, the Supreme Court, through the decision of Swapnil Tripathi v Supreme Court of India, allowed live-streaming of Constitutional matters and cases of national importance. The Gujarat High Court made the first step in July 2021 and became the first court in the country to livestream its proceedings. Later, it was followed by the High Courts of Karnataka, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Patna and other High Courts.
Citizen-centric services are offered through seven different platforms, viz. SMS notifications, email communication, the e-Courts services portal, Judicial Service Centers, Information kiosks, the e-Courts mobile app, and the JustIS app for judges. The digitalization efforts are reflected in the success of the e-Courts mobile app, downloaded 1.88 crore times as of June 30, 2023, and the JustIS app for judges, downloaded 19,164 times. The judgement search portal provides instant access to free copies of judgements easily.
The E-Filing system version 3.0, launched with advanced features such as e-Vakalatnama, electronic signatures, video recording of oaths, and integration with the e-payments module, further enhances the digitalization process.
Digitalization significantly enhances accessibility by removing traditional barriers between the public and judicial records. Anyone with an internet connection can now access an extensive repository of legal documents, judgments, and case records from any part of the country.
The integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) has improved productivity and efficiency by eliminating the need for vast physical storage spaces and extensive manual record-keeping processes. Legal professionals, including lawyers, judges, court clerks, litigants, and other stakeholders, can easily retrieve and review case status, judgments, and other documents online, reducing time spent on travel and administrative tasks.
The transition to digital records has also led to substantial cost reductions associated with maintaining physical archives, storage, and infrastructure. Video conferencing during judicial proceedings has further reduced travel expenses, allowing parties and stakeholders to participate in cases remotely.
Transparency is foundational to a just society, and digitized court records and live-streaming of proceedings contribute to open, transparent, and accountable judicial processes. This promotes citizen trust in the judiciary and increases awareness of rights and legal developments.
Digital records offer enhanced security compared to paper-based copies, which are susceptible to unauthorized tampering, destruction, loss, or physical deterioration. Digital copies preserve the legacy of past judgments, ensuring their availability for future decisions.
Lastly, the environmental impact of extensive paper consumption is addressed by digitizing court records, aligning the justice system with sustainable practices and contributing to a greener, eco-friendly future.
The transition from handwritten judgments in the past to the current digital era marks a remarkable journey. Digitalization has democratically brought people closer to the judicial system, providing easy access to legal records even for the underprivileged in remote areas.
The recent emphasis by the law minister on adopting cutting-edge machine learning and artificial intelligence reflects the ongoing commitment to enhancing and strengthening the justice delivery system through advanced technologies.
About the author: Vipul Maheshwari, Advocate, Supreme Court of India and Managing Partner, Maheshwari & Co.