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February 26, 2023

Digital courts

On 17 December 2022, the Supreme Court of Pakistan released data relating to the number of pending cases.  It was for the first time that the pending cases, starting with 54964 at the beginning of  2022, had been reduced by 2,653 by the end of the year. Very appropriately, the drop was attributed to computerisation of records.  The country as a whole has over 2.16 million pending cases which, at this rate, would require roughly 2000 years to resolve.

All this can be drastically changed, if only the Honourable judges realised three elementary concepts.  First that much before actually dispensing justice, they ought to reduce the mountains of misery that litigants have to endure  in the process of seeking relief.   Next that the justice delivery processes can be revolutionised not by foreign funded $350 million ‘access to justice’ loans but by indigenously  adopting modern technology and digitisation.  Finally that each and every process of a district, high or supreme court, that involves creation, copying, checking, storage and transportation of thousands of documents and files each day can be entirely digitised and eliminated.  This transition to so-called digital justice is redefining the ways in which justice is delivered, making it  more litigant friendly, efficient and less expensive.   United Kingdom may be a perfect example of how it saves 365 million pages a year by moving its judicial system to a digital platform.

Beginning from e-filing, courts could adopt a step by step approach to digitisation of each process.   The existing affidavit, identification, bio-metric verification, picture taking, stamping and fee payment process for each petitioner and lawyer can be replaced by digitally uploading  the petition along with the CNIC, biometric and photo identity.   This can be done exactly in the same manner and with similar verifications as already being done for online passport renewal for Pakistani diaspora.

Imagine a lawyer wanting to obtain a certified copy of a case file or order.  The existing procedure calls for making an application to the registrar of the concerned branch. The document or the file is searched and pulled out from a heap of other files,  loaded on luggage trolleys and manually transported to the Copying Department, after due entries on exit and arrival registers. The concerned lawyer will track the file, arrive in Copying Department, receive a Challan, go to a bank for payment, bring back the bank receipt to the Copying Department, who will then perform the generous act of making a photocopy. Even a simple task of making a photocopy involves many days of  completely avoidable runarounds.   This entire process can be eliminated by computerising all court documents and records and having them available on a central data base.   Any lawyer or litigant requiring a copy should be able to log on to the court documents, undergo necessary checks and verification, electronically make payments and download the required documents in a matter of minutes -without leaving his home.

Typically after the affidavit verification process, a lawyer would bring the petition and the affidavits to the concerned Registrar (civil, suit, criminal, CP  etc), where they are checked for completeness against a 22 point checklist of possible objections. Once all objections have been resolved,  a case number is allocated. The file is now moved to another office for roster fixation and then to the concerned branch for sending to the court on the day of hearing. Imagine all these steps, activities and departments replaced by a computer system that could carry out the verification, interactive resolution of objections, allocation of case number,  rostering, record keeping and presenting the documents before the court on the day of the hearing.

Like wise most other process could be completely stripped of all human interactions, thus minimising or eliminating effort, errors and possible bribes. No individuals should ever be required to visit any court premises, for taking or receiving any documents or money – may they relate to bail bonds, monthly maintenance allowance of a widow or fee for various court services and documents.

The technology and human resource for undertaking digitisation of court processes is already available in Pakistan.  The tasks mentioned above can be  accomplished in a relatively short time, thereby setting the stage for moving on to virtual courts.  After all why must a police officer, a government bureaucrat or an expert witness take hours off work to give ‘five-minute’ worth of testimony?    Are the Honourable judges and the Bar Councils willing to breakaway from the colonial past and adopt modern digital methods to forever transform the  judicial processes of Pakistan.

Naeem Sadiq

Zulfiqar Ali Qureshi

Digital courts (