The state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) has set a remarkable precedent over the past year in justice delivery. It has set a legacy of transformation through digitisation of its courts and their procedures thereby cuttingdown time otherwise traditionally spent on paper procedures.
For a High Court juggling two wings-one in Jammu and one in Srinagar, with a caseload of over 62,000 cases for only 10 judges (Delhi has a similar case log but 38 judges to handle them) simplification of court work through digitisation was much needed not only for the judiciary but also for the citizens. A centrally funded e-courts project had been initiated in 2005 to implement automated decision making and decision support system in the District & Subordinate Courts in states. However, until 2017, the project had been on a slow burner in the state with all infrastructure (including internet/LAN connections) in a rudimentary state. Coupled with this was the huge damage caused by the 2014 floods where a large chunk of court records had been destroyed.
A whirlwind reform process in the implementation of the e-courts project began in J&K from April 2017 onwards. Led by Justice Badar Durrez Ahmed who took over as the Chief Justice of J&K High Court (HC) in April 2017, the technical team from the Supreme Court e-committee and NIC officials chalked out a work plan for digitisation of courts proceedings in J&K along with the budget. Next, together with the state officials to support and handhold the ambitious project a number of parallel programs to achieve the mammoth goal of digitisation of all high court proceedings in the state commenced.
Foremost was getting a high speed LAN connection to ensure fast transfer of real time data between both the wings of the HC in the state. After all, without the digital linking of both wings of the courts the implementation of the ambitious project would have been impossible. The result was that after Delhi HC, J&K now is the only state with a 10 G LAN network for super-fast data transfer. This was supported by construction of two state-of-the art server rooms in both the court wings with latest configurations. Simultaneously, all existing computer systems were updated and training conducted in the court registry to ensure that all necessary facilities/capabilities were available with the court staff to use the freshly installed features.
With the technical back up in place, the next step was setting up digital display boards provided in both the wings for information about court proceedings. This would greatly help all practitioners juggling between the district and high courts. Parallel to this was the mammoth task of digitisation of the entire case records of both wings of the High Court exceeding one lakh pages. With the destruction of all existing records of disposed-off cases of Srinagar bench in 2014 floods, the Srinagar digitisation was completed faster. A similar exercise for Jammu is to be completed soon.
With a large chunk of the case records being digitised, the court has now commenced paperless courts in four benches of the High Court-two in Srinagar and two in Jammu. What this means is that there are no case related paper-books filed by the lawyers or accessed by the judges-even for pre-case reading.The judges use digital files and store e-notes on the system with all previous orders, pleadings, synopses not only digital but also bookmarked. The lawyers too are permitted to take in laptops for the hearing before the bench. The aim is to soon ensure that all benches become paperless.
Adding to the above, another landmark initiative introduced are video-conference hearings. With the court’s two wing structure, it often so happens that with a change in the roster the judge hearing a case had to sit in the other bench. As a result a case heard with a particular judge was often held up due to change in roster shifting to the other wing. Now, with video-conferencing and digital case records replacing the traditional process, the judges can hear the case through video-conferencing irrespective of the wing in which they are placed. This will not only prevent delays but also help ease the court procedure by eliminating logistical bottlenecks.
Similarly, for cases where the parties reside in a distant locations in the state, video-conferencing has been initiated for clients to see live the court proceedings and hopefully, soon the lawyers would also be able to argue before the court through video-conferencing. Recently, for a case involving the Ladakh Autonomous Council in Kargil district, the Srinagar bench heard the case in Srinagar while the parties to the case watched their proceedings from the office of the Deputy Commissioner’s office. With the help of real-time video-conferencing, the parties agreed to the court directions and helped dispose-off the matter , which otherwise would have taken months to organize. With accessibility to Srinagar from across the states beings difficult, resolving cases in a similar manner would not only help improve access to justice for citizens, reduce the hassles and costs that citizens had to incur in seeking justice but would also lead to faster disposal of cases.
Another innovative use of video-conferencing has been connecting central jail in Jammu to the Srinagar District Court through which accused in jails can be interrogated through video-conferencing without the hassle of being brought to court. Till date two jails in the state have been connected to district courts- hopefully with better internet connections, the remaining 20 courts would soon be connected as well.
Until March 2017, almost all other High Courts were already far advanced than the J&K HC in digitisation of court procedures. However, within 10 months, not only has J&K caught up with the others but has left most other HCs far behind in technological advancement. In most courts while only certain types of cases have been digitised, in J&K all types of cases for specified benches are paperless and within the next five months, all benches would become digital. This has not only brought down actual court time spent in finding pages and documents in the paper files during the hearings but has also eased the workload on the court masters and registry towards completing their duties.
There still remain a number of tasks are still underway to complete the full circle for the pioneer project - the installation of a storage system for data, setting online pleading filing procedure by lawyers, availability of high speed internet connectivity between district and high courts to save the travel hassle and time of lawyers, feeding in nomenclature coding for cases, integration of data with CIS & adequate backing of case data in store, and provisions for electronic service of summons. But what has been accomplished is nothing short of exemplary. Hopefully with a visionary force continuing, the pioneer project in J& K will be completed in its entirety in the very near future, and serve as a prototype for the rest of India.
Disclaimer: Views are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of NITI Aayog.