OPINION

It’s time for a virtual judiciary

It will not only reduce costs but also lead to speedy disposal of cases

During the nationwide lockdown imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19, it has become clear that many activities can simply be done online. Over the last decade, Indians have embraced technology in a greater way than ever before. We all have apps on our phones — Amazon, Flipkart, Swiggy, Uber, Ola, Zomato, etc. — that help us procure various goods and services. Today, in these exceptional circumstances, ‘work from home’ is a concept whose time has come like never before. Many offices are gearing up for the new normal of staying at home and working, as restrictions are expected to continue for an indefinite period. This brings us to the question, how can we use technology to ensure speedy disposal of cases?

Many hurdles

The pendency of cases in various courts in India is staggering. The Economic Survey of 2019-2020 dedicates a chapter to pendency of tax cases and revenue cases. The Survey mistakenly argues for more court infrastructure and judges to solve the problem. On the contrary, the existing infrastructure is grossly under-utilised. There are tribunals such as the Income Tax Tribunal that function only half-day most of the time. To make matters worse, most courts are closed for Christmas and summer vacations. Judges are not accountable for efficiency and performance. Thousands of Indians cannot afford to go to court as legal costs are high and legal procedures are complicated.

It is a fact that most tax matters do not necessitate personal hearings. Tax cases reach tribunals and higher courts after lower authorities record all the facts. The High Courts and the Supreme Court deal with issues or interpretation of the law. The bane of the court system is that lawyers on both sides need to be physically present in court. Cases are often adjourned due to various reasons. It is in this context that we make the case for a virtual judiciary.

In such a scenario, we can submit all the papers via mail. The judge can decide the case based on all the available information. Wherever the judge requires clarifications, he or she can seek the same through email. Typically, the judge, after considering all the material available, can pass a draft order and send it to both sides for any comments which they may want to provide. Thereafter, the judge can, after considering the comments, pass the final order. This will enhance the quality of the judgment and also eliminate obvious errors.

An efficient judiciary

The use of the court hall to decide such matters is superfluous. Not only will a virtual judiciary result in substantial savings in costs but will also lead to speedy disposal of cases. The productivity of lawyers will increase substantially as visits to courts and long waiting hours will be more an exception than a rule. If this practice is extended to other civil cases, efficiency will double, even treble, in judicial functioning.

The fact that the jurisdiction of a court is defined by geography makes no sense in matters such as taxation and company law. The change to remote, non-personal electronic court hearings will change this. All judges should be empowered to handle any case, wherever it originates. This will result in multiple advantages — the principal one being better utilisation of manpower and infrastructure by equitably distributing the work. Also, malpractices will be limited as there will no longer be familiarity between lawyers and judges in a city.

While India grapples with a crisis on the health and economic front, we need to think out of the box. We need a change in mindset regarding the way we work. Imagine the overall savings and extent of improvement of the judicial ecosystem if 70% of the cases get decided without going to court? If vested interests are kept aside and collective will to initiate what is for the common good takes precedence, a virtual judiciary can become a part of our lives.

R. Anand and V. Ranganathan are Chartered Accountants

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