Our e-courts project needs a big rehaul to assure us transparency

Judge`s gavel and law books.constitutional crisis (Shutterstock) (HT_PRINT)
Judge`s gavel and law books.constitutional crisis (Shutterstock) (HT_PRINT)


The the e-courts project, originally conceived in 2005, aims for computerization of district courts across the country, and while 2,605 crore has already been allocated, there has not been much to show so far.

The Union budget for 2022-23 has a generous outlay of 7,000 crore for the third phase of the e-courts project administered by the e-committee of India’s Supreme Court in partnership with the ministry of law and justice. The Chief Justice, as the chairperson of the e-committee, has acknowledged that these funds will improve the Indian legal system’s efficiency.

This project, originally conceived in 2005, aims for computerization of district courts across the country, and while 2,605 crore has already been allocated, there has not been much to show so far.

Sure, there have been small victories, like easier availability of judgements and case progression updates on the e-courts website. But these are underwhelming. The larger story of this project is one of opacity, missed opportunities and dubious constitutionality. In December, a parliamentary standing committee worryingly acknowledged that no money was spent on the project in 2022-23. The department of justice under the ministry and the e-committee had failed to get the necessary approvals in time. Who is accountable for these delays?

As it stands, nobody really knows how the e-committee is run by the Supreme Court. It does not release any minutes of its meetings. As far as we know, neither the e-committee nor the e-courts project has ever been audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General, or even subject to a basic performance review by the parliamentary panel. Similarly, we do not know how the e-committee co-opts various outsiders for the expert panels it has been setting up. Does it even conduct basic due diligence for conflicts of interest? This remains unclear.

A rare attempt at transparency was its decision to publish a draft of the Phase III policy document prepared by privately funded think-tanks and invite public comments. However, the final draft after the consultation process, for which the government has earmarked funds, is unavailable. To understand what the money would be used for, we filed an application under the Right to Information Act, seeking a copy of the final proposal for the project’s Phase III. The public information officer of the Supreme Court refused to share the proposal, stating that the e-committee is working “in close coordination" with the department of justice and that the final proposal is still under consideration of the government. How then was the budgetary funding obtained?

How was the 7,000 crore outlay figure arrived at? What will the money be spent on? What is the larger ambition for this phase? The non-disclosure of project details is worrisome and contrary to the principles of public finance.

We suspect that a closer review of the functioning of the e-committee will likely expose a litany of problems with the design of India’s e-courts project, starting with its anti-federal structure. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that high courts are in charge of the administration of the district judiciary in Indian states. However, when it comes to the e-courts project, the e-committee ensured that Phase I was implemented centrally. In the second phase, the high courts were put in charge of procurement and implementation, but the e-committee was still responsible for the crucial function of planning and setting standards; more importantly, the purse strings were held by it. While the Supreme Court has attempted to democratize the committee’s composition by staffing it with high court judges, it does not compensate for the centralized manner in which the planning is being done.

Chances are that high courts and state governments will do a far better job than the e-committee, since they have an incentive to use e-technology to reduce their own workload vis-à-vis the administration of the district judiciary. Such decentralization can vastly improve the efficiency of the e-courts project by facilitating greater technological integration with the e-systems of state governments. The issue of interoperability between e-courts and the prison system grew stark during the Aryan Khan bail fiasco, when it turned out that the star child had to spend an extra night in jail because there was no secure digital system to immediately communicate a bail order to the prison system.

Why is it that the e-committee has failed to take such basic steps? This is a valid question in a democracy. As it stands, our elected representatives can’t question the e-committee during Question Hour in Parliament, since the law minister has little say in how the e-committee functions. It is doubtful whether the parliamentary standing committee can summon the chairperson of the e-committee (always a sitting judge of the Supreme Court) for a hearing. These are just some examples of the undemocratic and anti-federal nature of the present structure of the country’s e-courts project.

Perhaps a decentralized framework with different high courts and state governments at the helm would’ve worked better by encouraging competition between states to modernize their own judiciary. It is not too late for the Union government to attempt reform. It should get the e-committee’s buy-in for a law enacted by Parliament to create a new legal structure for India’s e-courts project. It would be ill-advised to hand 7,000 crore over to the e-committee, given its less than enviable record.

Chitrakshi Jain & Prashant Reddy T. are, respectively, a legal researcher and a lawyer.

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