Covid-19 provides an opportunity to increase access to justice

Written by Hitesh Jain

Updated: March 19, 2020 10:11:32 am

Coronavirus tests being conducted at the Punjab and Haryana High Court premises. (Express photo)

In the past few days, “corona” is a word that has dominated every discussion. But this crisis also presents an opportunity. It has given us a glimpse into how we may solve overcrowding problems in the future, whether in terms of traffic, in healthcare facilities or the courtroom. If social distancing and working from home is a way to cope with the coronavirus epidemic, could these form the basis for technology-guided solutions in the future as well?

A couple of years ago, I spoke at an event about the concept of paperless and people-less courts. This an achievable and realistic goal. We just have to change our attitude. The legal curriculum has to change. Future generations of lawyers should study not only legal subjects but also technology and management. We have to think out of the box and change mindsets.

Paperless courts have been a topic of discussion in the last few years, and we can see some steps being taken in that direction. But old habits die hard.

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Just as continuous legal education is part of a lawyer’s routine, adaptation to technology must also become a professional goal. By using video evidence, video-conferencing and telepresence technologies effectively, a paper-less and crowd-less court can indeed become a reality. By leading from the front in this area, India will be also doing its part to combat global warming. With the reduction or near elimination of paper, and a reduced crowd at courts, there will be a significant reduction in the carbon footprint of the country.

Technology can be indeed a solution for the legal fraternity while dealing with both contentious and non-contentious matters. We must invest in virtual courtrooms and I am convinced that, barring a few exceptions, hearings can be conducted on a virtual basis. This will eliminate paper and it will eliminate crowding. But it will certainly not eliminate work and the workplace. In the era of high-speed internet and other advanced technologies, we can change our future and create opportunities for everyone. Virtual courtrooms and case management, and the use of technology, data science and artificial intelligence will address the issue of judicial delay that has clogged our legal system. The rule of law will be upheld in the true sense when the justice delivery system will become efficient, people-friendly and citizens can receive legal redress in a time-bound manner.

We have an opportunity to transform the relationship between the law and the community by increasing access to justice, removing the disadvantages engendered by increasing inequality.

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But most of all, we can address the increasing demands of people. The administration of justice will need a new approach, new strategy and more empowered decision-making in the digital world. Most of all, the adaptability and agility of the modern judiciary in leading a court system that keeps pace with the rapidly changing demands of society will be on test.

COVID-19 has forced people to maintain social distance, work from home – a minimum number of people, purely based on need, come to the court. But this can be extended beyond the current crisis. Let’s convert this crisis into an opportunity. Let us debate and explore the possibilities of how we can change in the future.

If 2020 will be dominated by the effects of the coronavirus, the year should also be one when we learnt from the crisis. We owe this to New India. Let’s challenge the status quo.

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This article first appeared in the print edition on March 19, 2020 under the title ‘Virus and opportunity’. The writer is a senior lawyer based in Mumbai and managing partner, Parinam Law Associates.

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