[Editorial Analysis] The promise and perils of digital justice delivery

Mains Paper 2: Polity
Prelims level: e-Courts project
Mains level: Judiciary and governance

Context:

• Indian courts are associated with the with long delays and difficulties for ordinary litigants.

• According to data released by the Supreme Court in the June 2020 newsletter of the e-Committee, 3.27 crore cases are pending before Indian courts, of which 85,000 have been pending for over 30 years.

• Technology helps only if it operates within the constitutional framework of the fundamental rights of citizens else it will, further exclusion, inequity and surveillance.

The e-Courts project:

• The e-Committee of the Supreme Court of India recently released its draft vision document for Phase III of the e-Courts project.

• Phases I and II had dealt with digitisation of the judiciary, i.e., e-filing, tracking cases online, uploading judgments online, etc.

• Despite some hiccups, the Supreme Court and High Courts have been able to function online. This was made possible by the e-Courts project, monitored by the e-Committee.

• Under phase 3 there is commitment to the digitisation of court processes, and plans to upgrade the electronic infrastructure of the judiciary and enable access to lawyers and litigants.

• It propose an “ecosystem approach” to justice delivery. It suggests a “seamless exchange of information” between various branches of the State, such as between the judiciary, the police and the prison systems through the Interoperable Criminal Justice System (ICJS).

• There are chances that the ICJS will likely exacerbate existing class and caste inequalities that characterise the police and prison system.

• This is because the exercise of data creation happens at local police stations, which have historically contributed to the criminalisation of entire communities through colonial-era laws such as the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871, by labelling such communities as “habitual offenders”.

A cause for concern:

• When data collection is combined with extensive data sharing and data storage that it becomes a cause for concern. The Supreme Court must take care not to violate the privacy standards that it set in Puttaswamy v. Union of India (2017).

• Data is useful when it provides anonymous, aggregated, and statistical information about issues without identifying the individuals. This could be made possible in Phase III by encouraging uniformity and standardisation of entry fields.

• There has been a dangerous trend towards creating a 360-degree profile of each person by integrating all of their interactions with government agencies into a unified database.

• This approach has been perfected by social media platforms and technology companies, and the government is now trying to do the same.

• Integration with other agencies of local data is a cause of concern.

• When integrating data of the courts and police stations, the intersection lies with the individual citizen, since it is the citizen’s interaction with these branches of the state that is being monitored.

• No clear explanation has been offered for why the Home Ministry needs access to court data that may have absolutely no relation to criminal law. This may lead to surveillance.

Role of technology:

• The objectives were to streamline judicial processes, reduce pendency, and help the litigants.

• To continue to do that within the framework of our fundamental rights, the e-Courts must move towards localisation of data, instead of centralisation.

• e-Committee must prevent the “seamless exchange” of data between the branches of the state that ought to remain separate. Technology plays an important role in the project, but it cannot be an end in itself.

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