Spot the E: missing, e-Courts to come soon, hopefully

First proposed in 2004 and dogged by numerous delays since, the project will hopefully see a partial completion soon

ankitalahiri

Ankita Lahiri | March 11, 2014



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The e-Courts project was supposed to speed up the delivery of that much sought after commodity called justice. But all it has turned up till now is an electronic mirage. Lawyers in Delhi are hassled and frustrated, and so are the people who turn to them with hope in their hearts. “Our work has doubled,” said Praveen Mahajan, a Delhi high court advocate.

“Not only do we have to file both the physical and digital copies for all cases, to make matters worse there are only two kiosks with scanning facilities in the entire high court complex. If I give a document for scanning at 10.30 in the morning, I can expect it only the next day. It is delaying the filing of cases in a big way. Only cases involving Income Tax and Companies Act are exempt from the inexplicable requirement for dual filing.”

The project has taken 10 years and close to Rs 750 crore, yet it’s all set to miss its third deadline, causing more hardship to the judiciary, the system it’s supposed to help in the first place.

“A system has been put in place without a supporting system,” said up a frustrated Mahajan.

A senior official from the Department of Justice, Government of India, put up a brave front. “By March 31, 14,000 courts will be completely computerised and  will offer four services -- registration of cases, generation of cause lists, generation of order sheets and issuance of orders and judgments,” he said. “The courts will eventually offer at least a dozen citizen-centric services.”

A long and torturous history

E-Courts was first conceptualised in 2004-05 as mission mode project to automate the judicial processes under the national e-governance plan. The then chief justice of India, R C Lahoti, wrote to the central government requesting the formation of a committee that would help in plannning and implementation. The project, however, was approved only four years later, with a completion deadline of March 2012. It is executed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), and funded by the department of justice.

A year into the project, it was realised that there were several shortcomings, including an insufficient budget. The budget allocation was then nearly doubled to '935 crore, up from the earlier '425 crore, and the number of courts to be covered was also increased from 13,348 to 14,249. The deadline was revised to December 2013.

Initially the project was to be implemented in three phases over five years. The first phase was to include the implementation of customised software for the judicial system, including for regional languages. The second was supposed to bring in judicial processes into the ambit of Information Technology. The final phase was to concentrate on the creation of an information gateway between the judiciary, public and government departments. However, faced with several challenges all the phases were rolled into one, and the implementation deadline was shifted to March 2014. The officials seem confident of meeting this new deadline, so much so that the next stage of the project is already being proposed. They are also finding a silver lining in the numerous delays and deadlines misses: reduction in costs due to reduced duplication of processes.

“Some of the planned activities are already being done as part of other e-governance programmes under the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (DeitY) and hence we might end up saving about '200 crore,” said the senior official.

Improving service delivery

A study done by the  committee entrusted with the project found that the disposal rates of cases in Delhi courts almost doubled after computerisation. Currently every court from the district level and below has been ordered to upload daily updates on the portal ecourts.gov.in. Till now over 3 crore cases have been uploaded.

A customised application software called Case Information System (CIS) has been developed by NIC, and it is fully deployed in 13,227 courts. The software is the backbone of the automation of the judicial processes. It helps in facilitating various services like filing of new cases, caveat checking for new cases, scrutiny check of plaints, calculation of court fees and online generation of daily orders through a common centralised system.

The national level project has several components that make it citizen-centric. These include judicial services centre set up at each court complex. The services offered by these centres include e-filing of cases, issuance of certified copies of orders and judgments and case status. The issuance of orders and judgments with digital signatures, however, is only available at some courts. “It has picked up in the last one or two years, but there is still time before all courts can access this facility,” said CLM Reddy, scientist and head of department of legal and judicial informatics at National Informatics Centre (NIC). “In the last three years, we have given out 9,000 digital signatures to judicial officers.”

The project provides for creation of a dedicated area for installing servers and ICT-related hardware. It will serve as a judicial service centre and each one will cost Rs 250,000 to set up. Laptops and ICT training are being provided to all the judges and staff. Connectivity from BSNL will be given to all the complexes and the judiciary staff.

All court complexes will be connected with the state wide area network (SWAN) and NIC network. The project also provides for last mile connectivity—from SWAN point of presence to court complexes.

Video-conferencing is a key aspect of the e-courts project. The project has proposed videoconference connectivity at 500 locations. As of now, however, this facility is only running on a pilot basis at some locations.   

Understanding the roadblocks

The e-courts project, has not had a smooth run. The nodal agency NIC has faced constant problems. “There are issues with hardware and LAN. Forget the block levels, the LAN reach is not available even at the district level,” said Reddy. “Besides, there is a lack of willingness among the vendors to work and stay at remote places.” 

Reddy, however, is quick to clarify that vendors alone cannot be blamed for the slow pace of implementation. “The nature of e-Court project is such that there is no revenue generation. The vendor signs an agreement for five years. They have to stay at the location,” he explained. “The only way forward for generating vendor interest is if the courts start charging the users a fee for the services.”

The problem of the vendors is something that both the NIC and the project committee are trying to understand and resolve. Both are exploring the possibility of a decentralised and regional implementation model for the future. It will be a departure from the current model of centralised implementation.
Another obstacle affecting the project is the condition and the availability of hardware. Sources within the committee said the quality of the hardware supplied by the NIC is inadequate.

“You have judges sitting in tent rooms, how do you install proper hardware there,” asked a committee member. “Don’t go by the new courts that have recently been built, like the Saket court. Delhi mein baith kar pura Hindustan toh nahi dekh sakte (You cannot judge India on the basis of Delhi).” Additionally some courts continue to use old hardware.

Reddy is candid in admitting that a project of this magnitude is bound to have problems. “Hardware-related problems are bound to be there. While most of this has been resolved, there are some states that continue to face the challenges as they do not have adequate infrastructure at that level,” he said. “Assam and the Northeast continue to face the problem of inadequate hardware.”

There are also issues with the satisfactory implementation of the Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with the vendors. “The vendor usually has to implement the SLA within 2-3 days. But they are not able to do so,” informed Reddy. “They take 10 days, sometimes a month to implement it. But overall, if we look at the whole picture, I would say that 4-5 percent of the cases are taking a bit more time.”

Citing UPS, which runs on a charged battery, as a typical problem that they face in terms of hardware, Reddy said,   “At places where load shedding is a common phenomenon the battery just doesn’t get enough power to charge itself. While solar-based power is being considered for the future, according to Reddy no final decision has yet been taken on that approach.

Besides, inadequacy of skilled and trained manpower is something that the project is still struggling with. Despite the training provided by both NIC and the project Committee, the state governments are reluctant to deploy technical support manpower. However, in the last one year 14,000 judicial officers have been trained.

The hitches do not end there. For a project that relies on internet services, connectivity is a major concern. As of now there are still over 800 complexes that do not have the basic connectivity. Broadband connectivity is being provided by BSNL, and in some cases, especially at the taluka level, through SWAN. The NIC and the project Committee have now decided to transfer the funds required to the local high courts, who are then expected to get in touch with the local BSNL representative.

Even in monetary terms, the project may face a future threat. Although funded by the Centre at this point, the recurring expenditure of the project will have to be borne by the state governments after two years. This is a future battle that will be fought between the Centre and the states, since some are not ready to come on board.

View from the ground

Has the project brought in transparency? Has it cut down the time taken to deliver justice?

“Whatever timeframe has been provided under the statutes, we cannot reduce that,” explained the official from the department of justice. “We have not compacted the timeline. But with the reduction in manual process, we have managed to stop the unnecessary adjournments. Indirectly the judicial system has become more predictable and thus more efficient. Through the order list online, the lawyer knows the next date of hearing and exactly what he has to prepare.” The lawyers at the ground level are not convinced with this explanation.

Praveen Mahajan claimed that even the smallest of amendments have become cumbersome. “At the ground level, the filings still have to be done by the advocates. However, there is the burden of the extra cost for the common man,” he said. “Every time we make any amendments, we have to scan the whole document and upload it. The cost of the scan, which is around '200, falls on the common man. It also means double the work for us. Earlier, when we used to do small amendments manually , we would just physically scratch it out.”

Another pain point is the e-format itself. Mahajan said all annexures have to be properly earmarked. “This is not possible for the clerks, who have only studied up to the tenth standard,” he maintained. “As a result the burden of preparing the application as per the prescribed format falls on the lawyers.”
Avni Sahu, a Supreme Court advocate, argued that the e-Courts project will just add to the already high level of pendency in the country.

“The e-Courts project is not serving the purpose. First, people are still uneducated in terms of e-governance. Second, e-Courts have made the process of e-filing so simple that people are filing petitions for even the smallest of things,” he said.

Pawan Duggal, an expert advocate in cyberlaw and e-Commerce, explained that the intention of the e-Courts project may be good but it may still be years before the impact reaches the common man. “First of all, we have to understand that the population of India has grown and so has the number of litigations. India is a litigate society. The kind of speed required has not been achieved,” he explained. “Second, there is not one fully dedicated e-Court in the country yet. They are all at different stages of implementation. Just digitising records is not the whole E-Courts project.

“There is also a distinctive resistance from the legal system. The profession is one of the most traditional professions in the country, and one that has changed the least. There needs to be more capacity building.

“Finally, the evidence produced in the E-Courts project is covered under both the IT Act as well as the Indian Evidence Act. There is a need for much more clarification in the application process.”

However, a member from project Committee said the benefits eventually outweigh the pitfall. “Through the E-Courts project a common citizen has been empowered. He comes to know what is happening in his case on the same day. Earlier he used to be dependent on his lawyer,” he said. “At times, the citizen is notified a day in advance when he has to appear in court.”

The first phase of the E-Courts project is not the revolution itself. With connectivity issues and issues of hardware, the first phase boils down to just one thing: the judiciary learning the power of the computer. Making all the services citizen centric is still a long distance away.

FIVE-MINUTE CAPSULE

Services offered by CIS

  • Filing of case (new cases)
  • Caveat checking for new cases
  • Scrutiny check of plaints/original petition if in accordance with procedural law
  • Issue of check slips in case of non-compliance or clerical error
  • Calculation of court fees due and paid for new cases
  • Registration of case
  • Online generation of daily orders on LAN for new cases
  • Filing of written statement by the defendant for new cases
  • Framing/amending of issues by the Presiding Judge after the completion of pleading/filing process for new cases
  • Copies of judgment on LAN for new cases

Steps to register a case

  • The lawyer has to approach the Judicial Service Centre within his court complex
  • Petition is received
  • Case is allotted a number
  • At the window, the list of deficiencies are presented to the lawyer
  • Once the deficiencies are solved, the case is re-registered on the software, CIS
  • Investigating judge uses National Judicial Data Grid to allocate the case
  • Lawyer can check case status online on in the district court website. Also at the common website- eCourts.nic.in
  • Both lawyers and litigants can access the proceeding’s summary online, the day of the next hearing and what aspect will be heard.
  • Once the order or judgment is passed, it will also be uploaded online.
  •  

(This story appeared in the March 1-15, 2014 print edition)

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