Courts everywhere are usually reluctant to change, especially when it comes to letting in technology into their functioning. Earlier this year, the US House of Representatives circulated the Sunshine in the Courtroom Act, permitting photographing, electronic recording, broadcasting and televising court proceedings. But several judges have been opposed to the idea. "We don't want to become entertainment," US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said. Earlier, another judge, David Souter, had said: "The day you see a camera come into our courtroom, it's going to roll over my dead body."
In recent weeks, the judiciary in India granted some concessions to the information technology revolution by taking three grudging steps into cyberland.
Two high courts allowed video cameras in, though in exceptional circumstances. In the Calcutta High Court, a counsel was reportedly being heckled continuously and sought recording of the court scenes to deter the unruly people. The judge allowed it, although with a rider that it would not become part of the records. The Madras High Court telecast its proceedings to a clapping and whistling crowd outside while it was hearing a petition related to the ongoing tussle between the judges and the Bar.
Such extraordinary situations have not arisen in the Supreme Court. Some months ago, it dismissed a public interest petition seeking installation of cameras in its courtrooms. Chief Justice H L Dattu dismissed it, remarking that the discussions taking place in the innermost chambers and collegiums were anyway coming out in the public, even without the help of CCTV. Only one judge among 30 uses the microphones installed in all the courts in the early 1980s. This week the court decided to examine the validity of examining on Skype a rape victim, who had returned to Ireland during the trial of the accused in Alipore court.
The good news is that the Supreme Court judges' library can now be accessed by the public to a limited extent. All judgments since the Constitution came into force are available free, with tags. Moreover, there is a remarkable collection of research papers, journals and even newspaper articles indexed according to subjects. Though all these cannot be accessed online by the public, the references can be utilised for further research.
Another important facility announced with some fanfare is the portal of the National Judicial Data Grid. This gives access to the figures of pendency of cases in almost all courts in the country, covering 19.4 million cases out of approximately 27 million. This site, ecourts.gov.in/services, has already prompted eager analysts to crunch and bleed figures and come out with fascinating findings. There are nuggets of information from the awfully clogged records, like a 57-year-old case in the Jharkhand High Court. There are wild projections: One estimate is that it would take a decade to clear cases in the district courts. Another guesstimate is that it would take 320 years to dispose of all court cases.
Though the e-committee controlling all these projects is going forward, the websites of the high courts and the tribunals are untouched by the trend of renovation. They have no uniformity in design or a clear publication policy. A person who searches for important judgments of the 24 high courts will find it difficult to get the desired one. The National Informatics Centre, which devised the websites, has not followed the same pattern for them, though the Supreme Court's is a ready model.
The Gujarat High Court homepage, for instance, keeps a decade-old declaration that its website is still under construction. It warns us that the contents may not be accurate and should not be relied upon to take any decision or sue the court. After reading all such warnings, press 'I agree' if you want to continue the perilous journey. Several high courts allow you to read their judgments only if you know the judge's name, the case number or the lawyer's name.
This is a totally user-unfriendly situation. The judiciary is hyperactive and interferes legitimately in social and economic issues affecting citizens. Its views should be easily available to the public, and not remain the patrimony of the black-robed brethren. Therefore the e-committee sitting at the Supreme Court must give priority to streamlining the websites of the rest of the courts.