Justice in the time of corona (and after)
The advent of the COVID-19 pandemic is a great reason for rethinking the provision of legal services and dispensation of justice in the country and rightfully so. The bar councils of their respective provinces in Pakistan have pushed for measures for the protection of its member lawyers, the judiciary, court staff and litigants who are having to appear in court for matters requiring or pending adjudication. Following suit, the honourable chief justices of their respective high courts, in their administrative capacity, have issued orders for enhanced measures to be taken to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even though the measures in place are meticulously doing their part to curb the spread of the disease, I thought it appropriate to put pen to paper in order to provoke a discourse on steps that can be taken by the judiciary to ensure that litigants who survive the ordeals and aftermath of the pandemic do not suffer further from a delay in attaining justice, thereby ensuring that with regard to the justice system, business does not only remain as usual but progresses to higher standards.
One of the ways to do that is to look into digitalising courtrooms. Indeed, the courts’ IT infrastructure has improved under the Access to Justice Programme and the procurement and implementation of the Case Flow Management System by the High Court of Sindh. Furthermore, in May 2019, the Supreme Court of Pakistan heard its first case via video-link through its e-Court system. Nevertheless, given the increasing workload of the courts and tribunals in Pakistan, a lot more needs to be done and fast.
The near-paralysis of civil proceedings during the current pandemic demands the establishment of a proper system for e-litigation that goes beyond merely hearing cases using a video-link. Such a system entails new civil cases being filed online or e-filing of new civil cases, online signatures, identity verification, online payments for court fees, case management platforms, efficient case management systems for uploading pleadings (with annexures) with a capable document retrieval and transmission functions as well as the publication of orders and judgments, all of which ought to be public to promote transparency. Of course, video links will still be used for conferences and hearing cases but with the added feature of transcribing the proceedings.
All of this will only be possible when we are able to digest the fact that the rules of procedure were developed at a time when the workload was lower and the increase of the same has resulted in inefficiencies and delays. Even though senior judges have done their fair share to reduce faults in the system but only so much is possible within the superannuated status quo.
Those obsessed with the idea of oratory and advocacy prevalent in the adversarial system of law will be opposed to the idea of e-litigation. However, those with a sense of responsibility and duty towards their clients, and society as a whole, will probably support the advancement in dispensation of justice.
Needless to say, systems mentioned above cannot be enforced instantly, just as Rome was not built in one day but that does not mean that society does not and should not have legitimate expectations for such growth. Countries, such as Turkey and Australia, have such legal systems in place already. Following in their footsteps and learning from their systems, Pakistan can also adopt similar digital mechanisms.
For the law is a jealous mistress and our lavish homage to it could be to learn and adapt (within the bounds of reason, of course) from other businesses as well that in a bid to social distance are implementing internet based strategy to ensure that their work continues, as unhampered as it may with the current pandemic.
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.