Access to Justice in India amid COVID-19

 The author of this blog is Shaurya Shukla First Year student of  Chanakya National Law University, Patna.

 What is Coronavirus?
  Novel Coronavirus a.k.a COVID-19 is a deadly virus that had been captivating the life of many people across the world and it was originated in Wuhan, China. This virus was declared a pandemic by the WHO. WHO named it as COVID-19 to protect the virus from getting stigmatized for any place or country? [1]

The novel coronavirus has affected more than 70 lakh people across the globe and it has caused more than 4 Lakh global deaths. [2]This virus affects the respiratory system of a human being and its symptoms include coughs, fever, and breathing difficulties. Many Scientists researching to make a vaccine for this virus have tried to treat this virus with antiviral drugs used against flu but they didn’t get any positive response. Various nations, including India, had imposed a nationwide lockdown to control the spread of the deadly virus, though the nationwide lockdown has now been lifted in containment zones, the lockdown is continued. So, in this situation, how the justice delivery system of India is supposed to work? 

Importance of Justice        
 Dispensing justice is a very salient feature of the Indian judicial system, which comprises a hierarchical system of courts i.e. Supreme Court as the apex court, High courts of the respective states, and district court in each district of a state respectively. It is the responsibility of the government to take all measures which are necessary to be taken for dispensing justice at different levels because justice makes sure that the laws are rational and prudent. 

Mechanism Adopted by the Courts in India 
   Due to nationwide lockdown, the physical courts were not able to function. So, the chairman of e- committee of the Supreme Court i.e. Justice DY Chandrachud proposed some guidelines for the functioning of e-courts. The Supreme Court and high courts resorted to virtual hearings because the physical hearing was not possible. Advocates have to appear on virtual screens for pleading. [3]The supreme court is using email for filing of the matter and conducting business. Supreme Court in its 7- page direction expounded the reason for going online and it further directed the high courts and the district courts to maintain the appropriate modal standards necessary for the functioning of the virtual courts. Supreme Court reasoned for such directions that, these steps should be taken to continue the proper functioning of the vigorous judicial system of India. 

Virtual Courts in Other Countries
Various other countries like New Zealand, South Africa, USA, Germany, etc. have also followed the system of virtual courts for dispensing justice. All these countries are using a different platform and ways for virtual hearings, for example, Germany is using Microsoft teams whereas South Africa is using Zoom. The supreme court of USA hears oral arguments by way of telephone and on the other hand criminal courts of Norway read-only written submissions before passing an order in a rape case, they have not heard any side before passing an order. 

Challenges faced by the Virtual Court System
So is it so? Is the problem of dispensing justice amid COVID-19 is solved with this mechanism?. Well, according to the author the answer to the above questions is “NO” because there are many challenges that this mechanism is going to face. One of the major challenges that this mechanism is going to face is that the lawyers and litigants in India are not techno-savvy. This decision of the Supreme Court has made the inefficiency of Delhi trial courts candid in front of the world.[4] There are six complexes of Delhi trial court and all of these complexes are operating virtually only in urgent matters such as bail. Litigants are complaining that they are unable to participate.
The problems with this system are: 
·         Firstly the major proportion of the practicing lawyers in India is technologically handicapped and they don’t know how to use the technology required for virtual hearings. 
·         Secondly, many litigants who reside in remote or rural areas would not have a good internet connection. So, they will face difficulty in joining the hearing.  
·          Last but not least, however nowadays everyone has a smartphone, but still many people are not able to afford one. So this can become a clog in their way to justice. 
The practice of the virtual hearings have been carried out in a good way at high courts and the same must be extended to the district courts as well. 

Advantages Of Virtual Courts Over Physical Courts And What Reforms Can Be Made? 
The fastest made vaccine for any virus was made in 4 years. According to this information, if we expect the best possible scenario, then also it will take about 3 years to make a vaccine for COVID-19. Until and unless there is no vaccine for this lethal virus and the graph of the cases is on a spike, physical courts cannot be resumed.
 So the questions which arise here are:

·         As we have no better option than the virtual courts in this situation, do they have any advantages over physical courts?
·          can the virtual courts take place of the physical courts when the situation gets back to normal?.
 These questions will be answered by the author as we proceed further. 
Coming to answer on the first question there are some advantages of virtual courts over the physical courts. As we all know that we have to live in the new normal till we don’t have any vaccine. In new normal virtual courts are the safest alternatives available for dispensing justice.
Some advantages of the virtual courts are:
·         It can save us a lot of time and travel costs because no one will have to travel to the court for the hearing. 
·         Paper[5] filings will be eliminated, which will save lakhs of pages. 
·         There will be no mess regarding dates available because the only the infrastructure required for the virtual courts will be a virtual device with a decent internet connection, that is why the trails will be speedy because it will cost less time to dispense justice in a system of virtual courts as compared to the physical courts. 

Coming to the second the question, it was made clear by Justice DY Chandrachud in some of the recent addresses when he said that Virtual hearings won’t substitute physical hearings but tech has potential. In some recent addresses like the webinar organized by students of NALSAR University of law and his address in the e-inauguration the ceremony of the virtual courts in Tamil Nadu he said [6] “An open court hearing is the “spine” of the justice delivery system and cannot be substituted by virtual courts” but he also made it clear that technology has the potential to become the future of justice. Justice Chandrachud also discussed some proposed reforms that if made, will improve the functioning of the virtual courts.

The reforms proposed by justice Chandrachud are as under:- 
·         Not every lawyer is e-enabled so they should be provided with training to make such lawyers adept with technology and Justice Chandrachud also proposed the appointment of entry officers for such lawyers till they have not become well versed in data feeding work. 
·         E- Seva Kendras will be opened to facilitate hearings of virtual courts.
·         A platform will be created to provide a dashboard to the judges where both digital files and e- files will be synchronized.[7]
·         The privacy of the cases will be taken care of adequately. 
·         E-Courts will be made friendly for the visually impaired and disabled. 

[8]Justice Chandrachud stated about making sure that influential people will be given no upper hand in virtual hearings. Justice Chandrachud also showed his concern about less number of techno-savvy lawyers in India; he said that technology can become an incentive for the students of premier law schools to enter into litigation instead of joining law firms.  

At last, the writer wants to conclude by saying that yes, the virtual courts are the best possible option of dispensing justice in the current scenario but, looking at their status quo, they cannot take the place of the physical courts, but if some reforms are made in the existing system of virtual courts they can become the normal court's post COVID-19. If any other pandemic arises after COVID-19 the courts should be prepared. Many scientists across the globe are saying that even if this pandemic disappears, the countries will have to take all necessary safety measures to be prepared for any unforeseen future pandemic. So, some serious reforms as proposed by Justice Chandrachud and a decent internet connection must be provided in every part of the country to make the robust judicial system of our country prepared for any unexpected pandemic.   

[1] Covid-19 Tracker, available at visited on 8 June 2020)
[2] What is COVID-19, visited on 7 June 2020) 
[3] Courts Today: virtual hearings, written submissions, arguments over phone, visited on 7 June 2020)
[4] Virtual hearings a real challenge for the trial courts, visited on 7 June 2020)
[5] Arbitration During And Post COVID-19: A Perspective, visited on 8 June 2020) 
[6] We are Conscious that every lawyer may not be E-enabled: Justice DY Chandrachud during E-Inauguration of virtual courts for Tamil Nadu, visited on 8 June 2020)    
[7] Id.
[8] Virtual courts won’t displace open hearings, but tech has potential: Justice Chandrachud, (last visited on 8 June 2020)


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