On 8th May 2017, a huge reform was announced in the Indian Judicial System. It was announced by the then Hon’ble Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar, Hon’ble Mr. Justice Dipak Mishra (as he then was) and Hon’ble Mr. Justice A.M. Khanwilkar in the Supreme Court Bar Association Bar room to the Supreme Court Advocates and Advocates-on-record present there.
It was announced that 3rd July 2017 onwards, E Filing would be started in the Supreme Court as a part of the Phase II Digitization process of the Courts. Paper books would be done away with, no requirement for filing those bulky lower court records and High Court records running into hundreds and thousands of pages. There was no need to file the same documents again and again as they would be directly sourced from the lower court. This would save time, energy, money, effort, hardwork and most importantly would conserve the environment. This was perceived to be a big change in the Indian Judicial System, which was pending for quite a long time. A presentation was given to the advocates present in the bar room by the Supreme Court Judges and queries of the advocates present were directly answered by them. This project was the brainchild of Justice A.M. Khanwilkar who explained the new system, the new website, the filing procedure and everything important to the advocates present there. The advocates were even invited for the formal inauguration of the E Filing System and the new website of the Supreme Court which was inaugurated by the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India at Vigyan Bhawan on 10th May 2017.
Everything was going as planned and all seemed good. The advocates appreciated the said change and welcomed it with open arms, the judges and the registry were proud and the Prime Minister of India Modi ji appreciated the initiative of E Filing which came from within the Judiciary itself and further said that this is in furtherance of the Digital India. I myself was very excited as I was personally pained to see millions of pages being wasted in litigation in the courts every year. But, unfortunately, the System did not work as planned and till date, people continue with filing the paper books before the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India. Very few people have actually done the said E Filing and after that, they have again resorted back to the paper book filing. Is this because the system has failed or because we are not welcome to change? Let us try to decode the reason…
First of all it may be pertinent to discuss in detail what and how the system has actually changed / proposed to be changed.
This ‘reform’ begun with a new website of the Supreme Court of India. This website was the base on which the said change was to be brought about. It was stated to be more user friendly, more responsive and a next generation website which would ease the way the work is done. It was supposed to be better than the previous website of the Supreme Court and was to make the work easier. The most important thing that the new website was made for apart from the reasons discussed above was E-Filing. The advocates were supposed to log in to the Supreme Court website using their login ID and password and were to fill in all the relevant details of the cases that they were filing and then had to upload the soft copy of the paper book online. This would drastically reduce the work of the advocates and was supposed to benefit them, as those long queues and the efforts in getting the paper books prepared et al was done away with just by a click of a button.
With the filing being done online, there was no requirement to make several sets of copies for the paper books, there was no requirement to go and serve the opposite party the copy of the paper book, there was no requirement to go and stand in the queue of the filing and the re-filing counters of the Supreme Court Registry. One could simply sit in his/her chamber and the Registry was just a click away. The best part about this system was that it was not only restricted to advocates but also to the Party-in-Person. Even the Party-in-person, other than the AOR could make an account online on the website and could file his/her case in the most transparent way possible. All the compliances of filing all the relevant documents of the writ petition / SLP, by the Supreme Court Registry was done away with. Now, only the grounds of the appeal were required to be filed and all other facts and documents were directly taken from the Court against whose order an appeal is being preferred. This was a big striking ‘reform’ which would reduce the work of the advocates, as they were supposed to just make the grounds of the appeal and upload the PDF file of the same. That is all what was required by the Registry. As soon as the case number of the High Court or the Lower Court against which the new filing is being done in the Supreme Court is entered in the system, the process of digitization and scanning of the records of that case will begin and within 24 hours, the scanning, digitization of the records will be uploaded on the Supreme Court Website, from where they can be easily accessed by the petitioner/appellant and the respondent along with the registry and the judges of the Supreme Court. This process would reduce the work of all the responsible people i.e. the registry, clerks and the advocates involved in the previous old tedious method of filing.
There is a small brief procedure of E-Filing in which first the AOR/Party-in-person is supposed to make a Log-in ID and Register on the website. After registration is complete, the Dashboard of the AOR would open where he could find all his cases that have been filed by him before and which would be filed by him in the future in just one place. If the AOR wishes to do a fresh filing, then just by clicking on the New e-filing option and filing the relevant details of the parties, the advocate and the Court from which the appeal/SLP is being preferred, and the relevant details of the judgments that have been cited and the case which is being challenged in the present new filing and with this the process of E-filing begins. Then, simply fill in the details of the index and submit after which the details of any additional party and the instructing advocate (if any) could also be filled in so that they are also informed of all the updates in the case (Presently, SMS/emails go to AORs who then inform the instructing advocate of any notification from the Supreme Court regarding a particular case). The soft copy being uploaded with all other relevant details of the case, the e-filing is complete. This whole process of E-filing does not take more than 5 minutes and as soon as the above process is completed, the AOR gets a Provisional Application Number which can be used for future reference.
Quoting the then Hon’ble CJI (in his address to the Supreme Court advocates on 8th May 2017),
“But what I want to tell you today when I have come to you is this that in this change we ask you for nothing. You have to do nothing more than you are already doing. We have come to tell you that we will give you a lot of what you are doing. So, this technology which we are introducing is not for you to do something more or to change what you are already doing but to involve you in doing less than what you have already been doing. We know E filing. When you E file, you do exactly what you do physically but you do it on the internet. You prepare the whole paper book, and then you E file it from your office and it comes to the registry of this court. We are moving from e filing to a process of digital filing.”
It was said that this E Filing would be beneficial for the advocates as it would reduce the work to one tenth. CJI Khehar said that, “For us to tell you today is only this much that everything which you used to do earlier is going to be reduced to one tenth. And with no effort. What more?”
Suppose an advocate has to file a Special Leave Petition in the Supreme Court against an order of a Writ Petition that was filed in a High Court say Bombay High Court. So that advocate simply needs to open a word document file, write the grounds for the SLP that he is preferring in the Supreme Court, convert it into a PDF File, log into his account on the Supreme Court website, fill in the particulars and write the WP number of the Bombay High Court against which the SLP is being preferred and then upload the PDF file and submit it. There is no requirement for any facts, list of documents, affidavit, etc. in the SLP and it would simply be the grounds of the SLP, as the file of the High Court / Lower Court would be called for as soon as the WP (Writ Petition) number is mentioned and that’s all that an advocate is supposed to do and all the paper work to be done in the Supreme Court is finished. As soon as the grounds are uploaded, automatically all the parties concerned (which were a party in the High Court) are informed and they can download the grounds of appeal which have been uploaded on the Supreme Court website. So, in this scenario, the file right from the District Court (or the High Court) will go up to the Supreme Court and all the records of that particular case would be digitized.
Moreover, if there is any delay in filing the said SLP, then the system would automatically calculate the delay and will even inform the delay if any. So, there is no work to be done with respect to the delay as well, and simply an application for condonation of delay can be moved without much of the work. What is even more interesting is that the Supreme Court website even now informs the advocate how much is the court fee which is to be paid. One just has to enter the particulars of the case and the amount of court fees to be paid is displayed.
Moreover, this system of the calculation of the court fee and the limitation period would bring in transparency in the filing of the case as the litigant would be aware at each and every step as to what is going on and what is going to happen next.
The Chief Justice of India had in his speech (in the Vigyan Bhawan during the inaugration) made a remark with respect to the court fee calculation that,
“I was a new lawyer, I had just started working. I used to go to the registry to file my cases and I knew how Process Fee was filed. So, we were standing in a group and this clerk comes to this lawyer and tells him how much money he should charge for Process Fee and he says where are the respondents, he says Abohar, he says what’s the distance from Chandigarh to Abohar. He says about 300 kms. He says charge him 1 Re per km and whatever number of respondents there are. So, every respondent service was for 300 Rs. as a matter of fact, its Rs. 2.65 paise at that point in time per person to serve a respondent. So here is the system which will tell every litigant how much money is spent, when is spent, what the date is, what is going to be done on the next date …”.
What is more to this system is that it is being linked to all Governments i.e. the Central Government and the various State Governments meaning thereby that all the relevant departments within the Central Government and the State Government would be having access to this system. Suppose, today a case is filed against one particular department. As soon as the department is mentioned as a Respondent in the case, a notification would be sent to the said department and it can download the grounds of appeal that have been filed along with the court record immediately. Previously, these departments had to get the paper book collected, then get it delivered to the advocate and then instructions were given in the case. All this travelling and work has been reduced and now the advocate of the concerned department can directly download the grounds of appeal. So, now if the department wishes to appear on the very first day of the institution of the case, it can do so and take a stand from the very first day. It is pertinent to mention here that the Union of India is the biggest litigator in the Supreme Court.
As has already been discussed above, this is not only restricted to Government Department but the private litigants also. As soon as grounds of appeal are uploaded online, the private litigants will also get an intimation of the same. What is more interesting is that the system would even inform the advocate if there is any caveat which has already been filed in the said case.
Let us presume that a Bail application has been filed for an accused. A bail application of another accused in the same FIR Number or case number has already been rejected will also be automatically informed to the judges and the parties, as the FIR Number or the case number would have to be mentioned and so it can be seen from the database.
Introducing this system may even help with reducing the delay that is caused in filing compliances and replies in a case. Once the case is in the court, there are certain timelines under which have to be adhered to by the officers to whom a particular task has been assigned- timelines are not being adhered to, then the intimation would move up to the superior authority, and would go up to even the highest authority if the timeline is not being adhered to. The then Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar and Justice Khanwilkar had even assured of the confidentiality and the security of the website and the files that are being uploaded on the system and it cannot be breached.
Another advantage of this system is that the documents will be digitized and all the evidence, documents and grounds and facts that have been relied in the Trial Court would be available even when the case reaches upto the Supreme Court. This would promote transparency and the documents cannot be manipulated. This is a system where if once the record is there, it’s always there, and that’s the record which is going to be relied on.
The Chief Justice had even assured that for making a system like this, no rules have to be changed. The present and current practice will continue and nothing with that regard would change. Supposedly, a particular document is not legible in the records or a document is in a vernacular language, then simply an IA can be filed to file the true typed copy or translated copy respectively. It was said very clearly that nothing is being asked from the advocates, rather a lot is being given to them.
For the sake of convenience, the then CJI said, the lawyers may initially download the PDF from the website, print it and argue in the court. Alternatively, the advocates may simply bring a laptop to the Court and argue having the laptop with them.
Apart from conserving the environment, it would even save out on the money that is spent by the litigants as they have to pay a considerable amount for getting the photocopies done, paper books made, typing done, etc. All this expenditure may be reduced manifold, as once the E-Filing pf a case is done, one does not incur all this expenditure. What is even more beneficial for the advocates and the party in person is that the labour that went into getting all of this done is almost done away with. If the E-Filing is done, then one needn’t go and get paper books made, get the service done, go and stand in long queues in the Supreme Court Registry for removing the defects in the files.
Environmental aspect and the benefits of E-filing – There are approximately 80,000 cases filed in the Supreme Court every year. If we take an average of 200 pages (usually cases are more bulky in the Supreme Court and this may be the lower limit) in every paper book then this translates to roughly 1,60,00,000 (One Crore Sixty Lakh) of printed pages. But this 1,60,00,000 pages are only if we consider one paper book being printed, which is actually not the case. In a normal Supreme Court filing, if we consider there to be only two parties as respondents (another reasonable guess; in many cases there are even 30 respondents), then approximately 8 copies of paper books are printed. If we take another reasonable and conservative guess of 8 copies being printed per case, then a total of 12,80,00,000 (Twelve Crore Eighty Lakh) pages are printed every year only for the filings that are done in the Supreme Court of India. It is pertinent here to even keep in mind that for every paper book that is printed, there must be even a few number of pages which must be getting wasted due to either typographical / printing errors. Also, many pages are reprinted at the time of removal of the defects that have cropped up in the files. For the sake of convenience and for not complicating the things, I will not be counting these additional pages that are printed. Furthermore, I am not considering the pages involved in the counter-affidavits/replies and rejoinders, etc.
If we look at the monetary aspect, then for printing 12,80,00,000 pages, we spend 12,80,00,000 (Rupees Twelve Crore Eighty Lakh) [number of pages *1; 1 Rupee is the prevalent rate of photocopy in the Supreme Court].
By chopping one tree down, we get 8,333.3 pages. This means that approximately 15,361 trees (this is not an actual estimate but rather the bare minimum estimate as all the figures used to reach to the said figure are the most reasonable guesses) are cut each year only so that we can provide justice in the Supreme Court of India. Is this much paper wastage and deforestation required? Moreover, approximately 90% of the cases are dismissed on the very first day in the Supreme Court and all these paper books are rendered useless. Considering the abovementioned issues, the Hon’ble Supreme Court of India had brought out this ‘reform’ so that we can save money, time and environment. [Please note: recently, around 16,500-17,000 trees were being chopped in Lutyens Delhi for building new government houses, which was stayed by the Delhi High Court; we already cut a minimum of the abovementioned trees per year to get justice in the Supreme Court]
So far, I am sure everything must be seeming like a cakewalk and that everything is going on according to what has been planned. But, the actual and harsh reality is that this system has failed and it is not working as it was supposed to be. The onus of the failure of this system goes to firstly the Supreme Court Registry / NIC Team and secondly (majorly), WE the advocates.
I spoke to a number of advocates and a few people in the Supreme Court Registry and the NIC Team (who developed the said system) as to why this system did not work as it was supposed to, which I would be discussing in detail in the following paragraphs.
Every Court room of the Supreme Court has touch screen high-tech computer systems for the judges. On my visit to almost all the courts of the Supreme Court, I was pained to see that these touch screen high tech computer systems are just lying on the table of the judges with no one using them. None of the judges are using them, because unfortunately most of the filing in the Supreme Court is being done by the traditional method of physical paper books. I was even told that if I am doing the E-Filing or paperless filing in the Supreme Court, still the paper books would be prepared for judges for which Rs. 6 per page of the file uploaded would be charged extra from the litigant. When I was told this particular fact, I was shocked as to why then was this system of E-filing even started. I was even advised by one official who did not wish to be named that E-filing system works only for those people who are not from Delhi and wish to do the filing sitting from their residence which is outside Delhi. She further advised me that, if you file it online, instead of reducing your work, it will increase it furthermore, as the system is not perfect and there are many issues around it. [this article was originally written in October 2017, and this was last checked in the same month].
Just like the newton’s third law “for every action, there is equal and opposite reaction”, with each and every filing, there always comes a refiling in the Supreme Court. It is very rare, rather impossible, that a filing is done in the Supreme Court and there are no defects. I was further informed and advised by another official that there is no option for doing the re-filing on the Supreme Court website and they are still in the process of developing it and it would be updated within a couple of days (I was told this in the second week of September 2017). I have checked my E-Filing Dashboard on the Supreme Court website till 12.10.2017, but I have not found any option for re-filing the matter. For doing the re-filing, one has to email the said document(s) to NIC/Supreme Court Registry and it is a very cumbersome process. [this article was originally written in October 2017, and this was last checked in the same month, however I presume that the system has not been improved as no one has pursued to improve it.]
Moreover, one AOR (who has done the E-filing once and had a bad experience) told me that once the matter has been filed, the registry also does not give preference in checking the defects of the files whose filing is done online as it is pre-occupied with the physical filing.
Furthermore, it was said that the records of the lower courts would be digitized within 24 hours and would be uploaded online as against the e-filing that has been done in the Supreme Court. On speaking with another Advocate on record practicing in the Supreme Court, I was told that the records would be digitized only if there is a setup to do so. How is it possible that all the courts would be brought under this system so soon without any training or anything of that sort. He further told me that, this system is not working in the Supreme Court itself and people are taking time to adapt to it, how do you expect the advocates and court staff from lower courts from different states to adapt to it?
On going through the news, help files and the videos (of the inauguration) of the said E-filing system, it had given me immense happiness. But once I started visiting the Supreme Court regularly and did a few filings (as an advocate), I got to know the reality regarding the extent of the application and reach of the system. The website, which was also updated and reformed, is also said to be full of bugs and it is unpredictable. The main page of the Supreme Court website which has the tabs of circular, notices, judgments, etc. is not updated (like it used to be done on the previous version of the website) [Note: as of today 17.08.2018, this issue does not exist]. It is a hard time finding a particular thing through the new website.
Being a technocrat, I was elated looking at the system. But unfortunately, it doesn’t work the way it was supposed to be. Maybe, there must be some change from the advocates’ side. Some change is even required from the Registry and the NIC Team. They should give priority to the E-filing and should check the traditional filing later on. This may incentivise the advocates to do the E-Filing. Furthermore, the Supreme Court may initially, to incentivise the litigants and advocates, can give some rebate or discount on the court fees (there is a huge budget for E Filing and a small rebate for a few months wouldn’t make a huge loss as compared to the benefit that would be achieved by E-Filing).
One day while I had gone to remove some defects in a particular filing, I was told by the Officer at the Registry that after the filing is done, they are sent for scanning. So, when they are sent for scanning once the Paper book has been filed, I would pray before the Hon’ble Judges to motivate the advocates and the litigants by viewing the files on their computers only. At least 3 copies of paperbook which are provided to the judges can be saved, plus, they can lead by example and set a standard and motivate the lawyers to do the E-Filing. If the judges start reading the files online, this itself would save approximately 4,60,00,000 (Four Crore Sixty Lakh) pages, if we adhere to the same estimate that was taken above. [Note: as of 17.08.2018, the Touch Screen computers which were found lying on the corner of the table of the judges have even been removed from some courts, including Court No. 1).
What more can be done is that the E-Filing can be started in phases. For example, in the Delhi High Court, if there is any Company Petition to be filed then, since 2014, the matters are filed only through the electronic medium and no paper books are made and submitted to the court. So, in the Supreme Court also this type of approach can be taken and E-Filing can be started in phases.
We complain and ban crackers on Diwali so that the environment is saved and there is less air pollution. If E-Filing is started, lakhs and crores of pages would be saved, less trees would be cut, there would be less global warming and as a consequence there will be less pollution. Thousands of crores are spent on curbing the environmental pollution and a huge impact can be made if this change is brought about. Saving thousands and lakhs of trees per year would create a chain of events in improving the environment. Another big financial benefit would be that the amount that is spent on the printing of all the pages, would also be saved. So, it would be like killing two birds with one stone! (in hindi: एक् तीर से दो निशाने लगाना)
Furthermore, there is a huge budget which is granted by the Central Government to the judiciary to digitize the judiciary. A part of this money should be spent on training the advocates and the litigants who wish to do E-filing. There is only one small FAQ file available online, with no video demonstration, no live chat feature, nothing. In today’s date, there should be a channel dedicated on Youtube helping the interested parties, and this won’t require a single penny. There is no support whatsoever from the authority so as to ease the E-filing. What even can be done is that a dozen of people should be hired / deputed specially in the Supreme Court to help the advocates with the E-Filing. If there is some dedicated staff to look for the E-Filing, then I am sure it would ease the process and make it simpler. What should even be done is that some tutorial videos / demos should be made covering each and every aspect of how the E-Filing is to be done and what would be the procedure of the same. This wont even take much effort / time and won’t even consume funds.
Another issue which comes up to my mind is that when the E-Filing is being done, still the advocate / litigant has to buy the ecourt fee and scan it and attach it. I didn’t see a system anywhere where one could make payment using the online banking / E-Wallets / Debit Card / Credit Card. When the purpose is to do E-Filing, then I don’t understand as to why cant there be a mode of payment of the court fee online itself. It would save so much time and energy. Unfortunately, even with the E-Filing in the Delhi High Court, the court fee is to be bought, then scanned and then uploaded online (in Delhi High Court, first the paper book is usually printed by advocates and prepared and then scanned, which absolutely makes no sense to me). In today’s date, when the Hon’ble Prime Minister of India is pressing for a digital economy, why can’t the courts accept the online mode of payment. Rather, most of the Ecourt fees is purchased using cash. I have till date not seen a single person who purchases e court fee using debit/credit card / Demand Draft / cheque / mobile banking, etc. Rather using an online mode of payment would help digitizing the economy as well.
The system is still vague and confusing and needs explanation from the side of the Registry and the NIC Team. It is definitely a big change and a very big move from the Supreme Court of India specially the then Hon’ble Chief Justice of India Justice J.S. Khehar and his brother judges including the present Hon’ble Chief Justice of India Justice Deepak Misra and Hon’ble Justice A.M. Khanwilkar. There should be a full revamp of the system, should be improved and should be brought out in phases such that within six months of the launch of the new system, all the filing in the courts is done via the electronic medium. It is definitely the need of the hour. I even humbly request the Hon’ble Judges to use their computer systems to go through the files and should lead by example and motivate the advocates to follow them.
Today or tomorrow, E-Filing will have to be started in full swing. Hundreds of crores of pages are wasted every year just so that justice can be dispensed in India. There is no other alternative to this paper wastage and major cause of environmental pollution but to begin with E-Filing. The question is, when do we start taking this seriously and when do we actually start the E-filing and help this nation save its depleting resources.
[This article was originally written in October 2017 and some facts and figures may pertain to October 2017].