Technology for better access to justice
The adoption of digital technology will boost the capacity of courts and help to contribute to a faster and more effective justice dispensation system and the furtherance of the rule of law, writes Ab Malek
THE ongoing global crisis caused by COVID-19 is not just a public health crisis. It has, rather, affected every sector since its outbreak. It has also hit the justice sector worldwide. At the outset, the necessity for maintaining the social distancing protocol to contain the spread of COVID-19 led to a closure of courtrooms and other legal activities and, thus, started affecting justice dispensation globally. As the court is the core legal institution, its long-time closure may create legal uncertainty and stand as ‘a self-destructive idea’. Consequently, like others, the Bangladesh judiciary is also experiencing challenges so as to keep the door of justice open and accessible.
As part of outbreak preparedness and response, the Supreme Court Special Committee for Judicial Reforms has underscored the necessity for conducting virtual hearing through video conferencing to run court activities. Most importantly, an act has already been passed to remove any hindrance to holding court hearings digitally using IT infrastructure installed in courtrooms. The government’s Access to Information Programme and the UNDP are providing technical assistance in furtherance of the act and a software, Virtual Court System has already been installed which is now in operation both in the Supreme Court and subordinate courts across the country. Moreover, the Supreme Court has also formulated a guideline called ‘Practice Directions, Instructions, and Manual for Virtual Courts and the Lawyers’ to facilitate virtual hearing.
An unprecedented event in the history of the country’s justice administration, these are obviously great steps forward and good news for the people as the use of video-conferencing and online platforms in court for holding virtual hearings of cases ensures access to justice in a difficult time like this when much of the world has stalled. This emergency systematizing in the face of the novel coronavirus outbreak appears to be a timely and highly required initiative. In fact, such arrangements would benefit the legal system in the post-COVID-19 time too.
Why courtroom technology?
THE history of the use of technology in courts is evidently not new. Courts traditionally require the attendance of the parties seeking justice or, at the very least, the lawyers representing them and, then, witnesses, court staff, and, of course, the judge. Since physical contact is deemed to spread COVID-19, their physical presence in courts has great risks. But video-conferencing technology enables the courts to conduct even substantive hearings without anyone being present in an actual courtroom. Such an opportunity, already taken to keep the judiciary functional, also indicates the beginning of virtual courts which, as experts say, might be commonplace in the future.
Already the use of digital technology such as e-filing, e-notification, e-public access, video-conferencing, and web-based services in conducting court activities is widely used in Australia, Canada, the European Union, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Bangladesh has also introduced a new chapter into its judiciary in this regard and, thus, has a participation in this revolutionary regime.
What impetus and outcomes?
WHY should the government go for the installation of adequate courtroom technology to facilitate virtual hearings? Evidently, it is a one-off investment that moves the courtrooms into the 21st century and pays off in spades. In fact, it has seemingly manifold and spectacular outcomes. Keeping litigants and ordinary witnesses out of the courtrooms during the COVID-19 outbreak would cut the risk of transmission within the court. In normal times, video testimony may also be encouraged in courts mainly to protect minors and other vulnerable witnesses from confrontation with the suspect. Overseas or remote witnesses may also participate in a court hearing from a remote location, subject to the 1970 Hague Convention on the Taking of Evidence Abroad wherever applicable.
Time, staff, money, and fuel savings also give impetus for courtroom technology. Recent studies on e-court found that high-tech court proceedings can cut court time by 25 percent. Even during a post-COVID-19 period, technological sophistication can put the courts to work better between the fixed endpoints such as prisons, courts, and police stations, if such tools are harnessed to benefits. A report estimates, for example, that a videoconferencing system implemented in courts and isolation wards throughout the Russian Federation was able to save an astounding $50 million in annual costs associated with traveling by offering remote communications in the court processes. This is exactly why it has already been proved that courtroom technology works as a powerful enabler that empowers courts to meet core purposes and to improve quality justice, public trust, and confidence in courts as an institution.
Albeit the initial shock of the COVID-19 outbreak on justice dispensation, the justice administration appears to have overcome the situation to an extent. The judiciary is adopting ways to keep pace and to ensure people’s access to justice in a time of crisis. While virtual court activities reduce the possibility of further transmission of COVID-19 now, the adoption of digital technology such as video-conferencing and web-based services will certainly boost the capacity of the courts and help to contribute to a faster and more effective justice dispensation system and, thereby, to support the furtherance of the rule of law.
Ab Malek is an independent researcher.
Originally published at https://www.newagebd.net.