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M J Antony: The judiciary's cyber holes

Lack of coordination makes court websites less user-friendly

M J Antony  |  New Delhi 

Lack of coordination in designing and developing makes court websites less user-friendly.

It is nearly ten years since the judiciary became tech-savvy. Considering that it is a conservative institution which loves dusty paper files, and is apprehensive of change and speed, it was somewhat of a revolution. The Supreme Court has gone quite ahead in the electronic field. Its judgements are on the web usually within two days. They can be accessed by the names of the parties, the judges on the bench, the subject, the Act and part of the text. The archives are also available. Recently, summaries of its judgements have also been offered.

The status of the cases can similarly be searched from anywhere in the world. There is a provision even to file petitions sitting at home. The Supreme Court site is simple and accessible to anyone familiar with the internet. The Chief Justice has promised to complete the electronic revolution in two years.

However, the lack of coordination among the courts shows in their websites. Though the high courts have a good model like that of the Supreme Court, each follows its own whimsical style. There is no common pattern, for instance, in the search options. Even different benches of the same high court do not follow the same model. For instance, the Jodhpur bench of the Rajasthan high court has 12 search options, and is far ahead of the rest of the high courts in the country. However, the Jaipur bench has only eight options.

The Bombay High Court has still fewer options. One can search its judgements only if one knows the case number or the coram of judges. Thus its use is limited to the parties in the case. If one wants to read an important decision of the high court in a matter affecting the public, one would be helpless. The Calcutta High Court decisions can be searched by the case number, judge’s name and the date. The Allahabad and Madras high courts offer four options, but their decisions cannot be searched by date.

The Gujarat High Court website has one of the most comprehensive, and scary, disclaimer any court can devise. It says in part: “The contents in this site do not constitute advice and should not be relied upon in making any decision. Neither the high court of Gujarat nor the National Informatics Centre, is responsible for any damages arising from the use of the content of this site. No queries will be entertained regarding the validity of information by the high court staff. At present, the site is running on a test basis, where the information may not be accurate.” The Sikkim high court has not opened its innings, while the Guwahati high court has no judgement to offer though it has just concluded its diamond jubilee celebrations.

The nearly 600 district courts are also far behind schedule. Only some 12 of them maintain a useful site. Thus, their orders and other information about them are not available at all.

The progress of the tribunals is also tardy and uneven. Tribunals and regulators are playing a greater role in the economic and legal fields and one expects more promptness in assisting the public. The last reported judgement of the National Consumer Redressal Commission was of November last year.

If you look for the latest in intellectual property case law, you would be deeply disappointed. Though the board was set up in 2005, its website has apparently stopped uploading its judgements after the inaugural year. After a gap of three years, someone thought of the website and uploaded a cryptic order in January 2008. It was as short as it can be: No one appeared in the case; so the case is dismissed as abandoned.

The Central Administrative Tribunal has a site which is simple, but only the main bench at New Delhi is user-friendly. The main bench is fast in reporting its judgements, and so far it has uploaded nearly 50 judgements of the current year. But while trying to open and read the judgements of other benches like that of Allahabad, Mumbai or Kerala one meets various script problems.

There is a long way to go if the mid-2010 target is to be met. Video trial of accused persons lodged in jails is only in their preliminary stages, though Bihar has gone far ahead in this. Digitilisation of libraries is far behind, though the Bombay High Court last month achieved this stupendous task. Last Sunday, a private bank disposed of 13,000 cheque-bouncing cases in Delhi in an online Lok Adalat. The Central Information Commission, with which the Supreme Court is now in a legal battle, had asked the court to consider computerising all its records four years ago, as mandated under the Right to Information Act. One could say that the keyword in computerisation of the judiciary is transparency.

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First Published: Wed, February 11 2009. 00:51 IST