While efforts must be made to retain heritage buildings housing Indian Courts, we must not cling on to them if infrastructure necessary for the court’s functioning cannot be incorporated into such structures, opined retired Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Sikri on Monday..However, he acknowledged that this is a topic that has to be debated seriously. He observed that on the one hand, a heritage building may have its own aura of authority. On the other hand, there may be limitations when it comes to incorporating necessary court infrastructure into a heritage building.."If, under the circumstances, in the building, all that is sought to be introduced by way of infrastructure - if that is possible, then yes, we must retain the heritage also. Why not? We should lean in favour. But if that is not possible, then we should not cling to heritage and say 'we are not going to give it up'. We have to see it with an open mind,” Justice Sikri opined..For perspective, he cited the example of the Singapore Supreme Court which, he recalled, used to be housed in a beautiful heritage building 10-15 years ago. A decision was made sometime back to shift the Singapore Supreme Court to a new, more technology friendly building as the older heritage building was not capable of incorporating such infrastructure.."As far as Singapore is concerned, they did not stick to this heritage factor, but they shifted to building and it is now rated as one of the best buildings when it comes to infrastructure,” Justice Sikri observed..Justice Sikri, a former Supreme Court Judge and Chairman of the National Court Management System (NCMS), was one of the speakers present for the launch of a report on “Re-Imagining Court Infrastructure in India” prepared by the JALDI Team of Vidhi Centre of Law and Policy in collaboration with the Srishti Institute of Art and Design..The other speakers for the event included Senior Advocate Dr Aditya Sondhi (Karnataka High Court); Brinda Sastry, Urban Design and Planing Practitioner, Adjunct Faculty, RV College of Architecture and Gaurav Raheja, Professor in charge, Inclusion and Accessibility Services, IIT Roorkee..[Watch video].On the topic of retaining colonial-era heritage buildings, Dr Sondhi opined that the aesthetic feel of such buildings also contributes to the productivity of its stakeholders. He was of the opinion that one should not throw the baby out with the bathwater in calling for shifting courts from such heritage buildings..“When we speak of the aesthetic of the High Courts, especially the Karnataka High Court that we are familiar with, those are things that, perhaps, colonial legacies need to be credited for. The aesthetic and feel of the Karnataka High Court, I can tell you, is amongst the best in the country...in my personal view, I think that set up in fact enhances your productivity. There was a time when there was a proposal to demolish the Karnataka High Court in 1982. Interestingly, it was a PIL filed before the High Court itself which led to it being preserved. And thank God for that, because otherwise today we would not have this majestic court. And that is, in some way, true of many High Courts. If you visit Bombay (High Court), and even the Nagpur Bench, Madras and so on. They have a certain aesthetic to them”, Dr Sondhi said..He went on to comment that if there are ways in which these heritage buildings can be made more accessible, these are aspects that can certainly be looked at."But that can’t be at the cost of the existing infrastructure and aesthetic that you have,” he added. .On the need to consult experts in carrying out court reforms.The report launched on Tuesday focuses on the Karnataka State Consumer Dispute Redressal Forum, detailing gaps and solutions when it comes to spatial management, organisation of functions, storage, the state of utilities available at the court etc, the reports authors explained during the launch event..“A crucial gap that most of these court structures have is with respect to accessibility. If you are talking about persons with disabilities, there Is absolute lack of navigation tools, signages, ramps etc. that makes these spaces - they cut out these persons from these spaces and there is a huge discomfort of accessibility that comes into question. All of these gaps lead to challenges”, Reshma Sekhar, a co-author observed..Pooja Sastry, another co-author went on to inform how design students from the Srishti Institute collaborated in undertaking field visits and through studio workshops. The law governing the court (in this case, the consumer laws) was deconstructed to find out what the design requirements of a consumer court is, how the present set up falls short and what are the possible solutions..The idea was to study how people interact in the existing court and re-imagine the court set up “to be able to place those same people and those functions in a more comfortable, efficient, optimal and, we hope, a more happier space,” Sastry added.."What should Courts look like?" Vidhi, Srishti Institute of Design, bring out report on "Re-imagining Consumer Forums" .While lauding the report, Justice Sikri endorsed the engagement of experts (in this report, design experts) in efforts for reform.."Even when talk of reforms in the judiciary, it is not that we have to just think from within…I have seen, over a period of time, being part of the judiciary for 20 years, that mostly, when it comes to judicial reforms, the judiciary wants to bring those reforms but then they don’t want to look outside. They think they have the solution for everything, which is a misnomer. We have to have a broad view, a broad vision about it and there has to be an inclusive approach by including others who are experts,” he observed..On the creation of need-based infrastructure.What is reflected from the report is that there should be need-based infrastructure, depending on what kind of courts are to function, Justice Sikri added. His keynote address further saw him opine that the creation of infrastructure ties to creating a level-playing field, which in turn aids the goal of access to justice..“The judgment given by the court, in the end, may be ultimate aim of providing justice, the end result. But the end result is achieved only when there is a level playing field. The process of evolving or reaching to that conclusion is also very, very important. This process is facilitated by proper infrastructure,” he said..With the pandemic and the rise of virtual courts, there is not a need to introduce technology to courts in a big way, he went on to comment..“As a chairman of NCMS I can say that computerisation facilitates court management, case management, which the judge can undertake…. For the lawyers and litigants, availability of information as to what is the stage of their case, what for it is listed - all that information is available in the website of the court. So in all these respects, infrastructure is so important when it comes to access to justice.”.He also expressed reservations over whether all courts in India have been sufficiently equipped with the required technical infrastructure as of yet.“We have proclaimed and we are saying ‘look, doing this lockdown period and because of this pandemic when physical hearings are not possible, courts are functioning'. But if somebody makes a study whether all the courts in the entire country are functioning in that manner, I have my doubts on that,” Justice Sikri said.As far as consumer disputes are concerned, Justice Sikri opined that Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) is going to play a major role.“Not only the COVID period has taught us, but even otherwise, consumer disputes are eminently suitable for online dispute resolution, This is one fo the projects recently undertaken by the Niti Ayog as well and incidentally I as the chairman of that advisory committee which came out with that,” he stated. .As he concluded his address, he also expressed hope that the next Chief Justice of India, NV Ramana, would talk steps to boost court infrastructure. Referring to recent remarks made by Justice Ramana in this regard, Justice Sikri said.“Good thing is he is going to be the next Chief Justice of India and we hope that expect that as next Chief Justice of India, he will walk the talk and that on what he has said, he will take action on that.”.Justice NV Ramana proposes National Judicial Infrastructure Corporation to cater to infrastructure demands of judiciary.During the panel discussion, Professor Gaurav Raheja expressed reservations over viewing the court as only a “building”, observing that it should be viewed as an environment that should function for the purpose for which it was created. He called for a more sensitive, constructive approach to designing court spaces.."So the court is... meant for...a whole range of humanity and we have to see it from everyone’s shoes. And when I see it from the eyes of a child, it’s absolutely intimidating…. Is the court meant for convicts or is it meant for bringing clarity to justice? Most often, it’s imagined as convicts… On the contrary, we find that convicts are so hardened criminals that the built form makes not impact on them. But the tenderness of the humanity that walks in, be it in the form of a woman or a child or a family… could be a poor farmer - are we sensitive to what is the temperature of the stone on which he walks in?”, he observed..Brinda Sastry observed that it is important to understand who the stakeholders are, what their objective needs are and the time spent by them in the court premises, when it comes to taking steps to improve court infrastructure. The diversity needs of persons coming to the court - including in terms of language and cultural barriers - must also be borne in mind, she pointed out. The usage of technology to get over these barriers would also become a part of the infrastructure, she added..Referring to the debate over whether the heritage or iconic nature of a court building would impact how it is perceived, she remarked that the focus should be on ensuring that the court’s design coveys that it is egalitarian rather than authoritarian..The discussion was moderated by Deepika Kinhal, team Lead, JALDI, Vidhi Centre of Law and Policy. As the event came to a close, Kinhal remarked,“This is the first of its kind webinar and I’m sure it will be the first of many because clearly there are many points that require further discussion.”.Co-authors of the report, Shreya Tripathy (Vidhi Research Fellow), Pooja Sastry and Preeta Dhar (faculty members at the Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology) were also present for the virtual event.