Data maintenance cost of eCourts

The e-courts mission has revolutionized the Indian justice delivery system through the innovative application of digital technology.
Data maintenance cost of eCourts

The e-courts mission has revolutionized the Indian justice delivery system through the innovative application of digital technology. The spectacular progress made in conducting court hearings through video conferencing has earned the country the distinction of being the global leader in the field. The exponential increase in data consumption by e-courts also brings the challenge of future data management and data security. Official data shows that under the Wide Area Network (WAN) Project, connectivity has been provided to 99.4% of total Court complexes across the country with a 10 Mbps to 100 Mbps bandwidth speed. The National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) is a database of orders, judgments, and cases, created by the eCourts Project, which provides information relating to judicial proceedings/decisions in all computerized district and subordinate courts of the country. Litigants can access case status information in respect of over 24.79 crore cases and more than 24.53 crore orders / judgments which is indicative of the increasing volume of both data generation and data consumption across the online system. Figures related to information downloaded from the eCourts services portal and judicial service centres speak volumes about the advantages the project has brought, such as quick retrieval of case-related files and information at the click of a mouse. More than 4.74 lakh SMS and 6.06 lakh emails are sent daily to lawyers and litigants across seven platforms to provide information on case status, cause lists, judgements, etc. Reengineered court rooms under the e-court ecosystem remind judges and court staff of the challenges faced by understaffed courts in retrieving case files, judgements, and orders required while hearing and deciding a case in a physical court environment prior to the rollout of digital services. This posed hurdles to the efficient and smooth functioning of the judiciary and was one of the factors delaying justice delivery. Information furnished by the government in the Rajya Sabha highlights that the District & Subordinate courts heard 2,17,99,976 cases while the High Courts heard 82,76,595 cases till December 31, 2023 using video conferencing system and Supreme Court held 6,24,427 hearings through video conferencing till January 4. Video conferencing facilities have also been enabled between 3240 court complexes and the corresponding 1272 jails. The operationalization of 25 virtual courts in 20 states and union territories to handle traffic challan cases has so far handled 4.24 cases online and led to the realisation of Rs 492 crore as fines against traffic rule violations. Safekeeping of the online challans and payment details for future reference is critical to boosting confidence in virtual court systems. The tripartite agreement signed between Department of Justice, High Courts and respective State Governments as part of the eCourts project Phase II, specified that payment of charges for connectivity and maintenance for two years from the time of installation is to be borne by the respective State Governments. The Union Cabinet, in its meeting held on September 13, 2023, approved eCourts Phase-III spanning four years with a budgetary outlay of Rs. 7210 crore after the Detailed Project Report for eCourts Phase-III was approved by the eCommittee, Supreme Court of India, in 2022, and the Expenditure Finance Committee accorded approval to the Phase-III of the eCourts Project in February last year. Subsequently, Rs. 225 crore has been released for eCourts Phase III by the Ministry of Finance from the Contingency Fund, out of which Rs. 102.50 crore has been allocated to BSNL and the National Informatics Centre and Rs. 110.24 crore has been allocated to various high courts for scanning and digitization, e-Sewa Kendras, IT hardware for existing and newly setup courts, solar power backup, etc. The government claims that eCourts Phase III envisages a state-of-the art and latest cloud-based data repository for easy retrieval; paperless courts; and video conferencing facilities that are to be expanded to also cover district hospitals; and will provide a smoother user experience of a “smart” ecosystem. “Registries will have less data entry and minimal file scrutiny, facilitating better decision-making and policy planning. The eCourts Phase-III may thus prove to be a game changer in ensuring ease of justice by making the court experience convenient, inexpensive, and hassle-free for all the citizens of the country,” states an official release. With data consumption growing by leaps and bounds, the charges for connectivity and maintenance are poised for a proportionate increase. It remains to be seen how the cost of seeking justice is going to be impacted if the charges are to be passed on to the litigants in the long run. Higher charges, creating a barrier for litigants, cannot be ruled out. Courts and governments need to deliberate on the issue and ascertain whether the country is ready for e-courts with litigants paying for data and maintenance costs or whether governments should continue to shoulder the burden for more years. This will ensure that the opportunities the online system has created for improving access to justice for all are not overshadowed by worries about data maintenance costs.

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