This story appeared yesterday at Swarajyamag
By Anand Parthasarathy
September 11 2022: There was a time when ‘Green Bench’ meant a judge or judges in a court who heard cases flowing from environmental matters. Supreme Court Justice D.Y. Chandrachud put a whole new spin on the term this week. He said the Constitution Bench would be a green bench in the sense that it would be completely paperless, by the time of its next sitting on October 11.
When some lawyers present in court expressed some misgivings, he said jokingly: If you can argue in court, you can easily adapt to this… We also got training, some day you have to start.” The IT cell of the apex court would be happy to provide the necessary coaching, he added.
Justice Chandrachud is Chairperson of the Supreme Court e-Committee, a body first mooted in 2005 by the late R.C. Lahoti when he was Chief Justice. There was scant progress till the then Supreme Court Chief Justice J.S.Kehar again pushed for digitization towards the end of his term in 2017. At that time only the Telangana High Court in Hyderabad had some paperless elements, using digitized records.
Within weeks of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, the apex court switched to virtual sittings wherever possible. In June 2020, , Swarajya reported that for the first time, a virtual sitting of the Supreme Court went substantially paperless: Judges used laptops; lawyers connected to the court via video conferencing. There were glitches – but continuity in the delivery of justice was ensured. The 3-judge Bench included Justices Chandrachud, Hemant Gupta and Ajay Rastogi.
In October 2021, with 18 months of experience behind it, the e-Committee of the Supreme Court instructed all High Courts to make e-filing of cases mandatory for all petitions by government agencies.
Kerala courts go 'smart'
The High Court of Kerala in Ernakulam, was the one that moved with most alacrity – possibly because it had already positioned some of the bits and pieces of automation in place. On New Year’s Day 2022, Justice Chandrachud who remains a strong evangelist for paperless courts, virtually inaugurated Phase One of the Kerala ‘Smart Court’ initiative: six courtrooms of the High Court including that of the Chief Justice were ‘paperless-ready’: the judges were provided large computer touch screen terminals, which they could operated by touch or with a stylus; a Judges dashboard allowed the judge to pull up any document connected with the case – or even refer to case law from the court’s all-digital library. Remarks made by the judge were converted from voice to text, saving the considerable pains of clerks and court reporters. The two litigant lawyers in court too, had use of touch screens in front of them. And lawyers in their chambers had their own portal from where they could monitor the progress of all cases they were handling and make fresh filings using an e-form.
In another India-first that day, Kerala extended the same paperless system to two subordinate courts: the Additional Chief Judicial Magistrate’s court in the state capital Thiruvananthapuram and the First Class Judicial Magistrate’s Court in Kolenchery, Ernakulam District.
Paperless bail processes
In the 9 months since then, the Kerala High Court has consolidated its leadership among states in its paperless progress. In another significant order on July 21 this year, it mandated that all bail applications would henceforth be handled in a completely paperless process : the judge will directly access the report from the concerned police department and bail orders from the High Court would be sent virtually to the concerned magistrate’s court—no intermediaries, no waste of time. It is difficult to overstate how far reaching this decision could be. At one stroke, it embraces the looming humanitarian aspect of granting bail, while eliminating all possible delays in granting liberty to successful bail applicants. Yet incredibly this Kerala initiative has been hardly reported upon outside a few legal circles. The all paper route has since been extended to tax cases as well.
One of the reasons why Kerala’s quest to reform its justice delivery systems in the light of modern technology has been so successful, is the quiet efficiency with which the Kerala High Court Committee in Charge of Computerization (headed since 2019, by Justice A. Muhamed Mustaque) has been functioning for 10 years now.P.B. Sahasranamam, a senior advocate of the Kerala apex court, well known for his many landmark wins on environmental matters, decided to buy a personal computer and printer for his chambers, over three decades ago, as soon as the Internet came to Kerala. Since then his computer systems and his office have grown in tandem with tech advances. Lawyers like Sahasranamam have found the switch to paperless courts almost painless – and largely beneficial. Today his experience in automation is often sought by the HC computerization committee – to understand how best to motivate members of the Bar to go paperless. “Just laying down deadlines doesn't work”, he says, “We have to understand the practical problems of advocates and their legal clerks, many who are faced with the practical consequences of going paperless. In the Kerala High Court we have made the entire complex a WiFi hotspot and created special rooms with connected PCs, printers and scanners, so that lawyers or their clerical staff can digitize documents and submit them to the court, right from there.”
Sahasranamam agrees that the pandemic lockdowns provided the final push: “While it was more of a contingency plan during the pandemic, it has now become an essential part of the court systems in Kerala. There has been a major revamp in how courts function- this includes new IT infrastructure, dedicated software and support systems that have become essential to the service.”
Other state courts too are experiencing the ‘garam hava’ of automation:
On September 9, the Orissa High Court marked “One Year of the Record Room Digitization Centre''. Bench&Bar reports that SC Justice Chandrachud appreciated the High Court for being at the forefront in implementing initiatives of the e-Committee. But he pointed at some hurdles: “Digitisation would be a lost cause if advocates file cases using hard copies which then have to be digitised by court staff. It is counterproductive to our aim of reducing the carbon footprint.”
In an interesting development at the Bombay High Court, reported by Indian Express, Justice Gautam S. Patel, in a division bench last month, declined to accept hard copies of an affidavit from a litigant, the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO). “It is incongruous that in an environmental PIL that seeks to protect wetlands and filed by a social action group that seeks to protect forests, more and more paper is being used like this”, said the court.
On Onam 2022, September 8,, Kerala courts achieved another milestone: converting all existing paper files to digital files – an ambitious Rs 3 crore project, one small step for one court in the country – but what may turn out to be a giant leap in a national quest to unshackle our legal systems from the paper chains.
LiveLaw quotes Kerala’s Justice Mustaque: “Our Institution’s future depends on how well we are prepared to adopt and adapt to these changes. Only a combined effort can change our routine and age-old mode and method of working for enhancing administration and dispensation of Justice for the people.”
For more images of paperless Kerala courts, see Image of the Day
For video of Kerala e-filing and other paperless court initiatives see our Tech Video spot on the home page for a few days