In India, transparency has been upheld as crucial for a smooth functioning of the Government Machinery. Keeping this in mind, it was in the year 2005 Right to Information Act came into force that empowered the citizens, promoted transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, aimed to contain corruption, and make the democracy work for the people in a real sense. But when the topic comes to transparency in the workings of the judiciary, the talks go mum.
As far as Indian Judiciary goes only the Supreme Court and High Court judgements are reported. The District Court or Trial Court Judgements can be availed only the party to the case that too only through their Advocates. This one particular fact put forth a question that what might be the reason behind such analogy. The question was partially answered by the Hon’ble Supreme Court in 2020 through the judgement of Chief Information Commissioner Officer v. High Court of Gujarat and Others wherein the issue discussed was whether the copies of a particular case in a District Court of Gujarat be done by filing an RTI. It was held that
“when there is an effective machinery for having access to the information or obtaining certified copies which, in our view, is a very simple procedure i.e. filing of an application/affidavit with requisite court fee and stating the reasons for which the certified copies are required, we do not find any justification for invoking Section 11 of the RTI Act and adopt a cumbersome procedure. This would involve wastage of both time and fiscal resources which the preamble of the RTI Act itself intends to avoid.”
Through this judgement it was very clearly opined that there is no need for the Lower Court judgements to be available to public at large, without a proper intervention and process that mandates the involvement of the Court Staff.
A ray of light in this scenario can be the upcoming project of e-filings as started on 31.07.2020 that aims to reduce the dependency of courts on papers and promote the e-filing of not only the cases but also the related replies, affidavits, application and documents as submitted during the course of a case. The process has just begun and only being practiced in selective District Court of States like Delhi, Chhattisgarh. The e-filing portal not only allows the advocate to register themselves but also allows a common man to do the same. Once the registration is reviewed by the admin of the selected High Court/Court Establishment. With a proper set up of the e-filing being done, one can expect the judgements to get uploaded in the database of the District Courts. With just one step of making the database get accessed to all, like the Supreme Court on every District Court’s official website, every person will be able to read the judgements as being passed by any Court in India.
This task has been achieved in foreign nations too, like America follows the system of PACER- Public Access to Court Electronic Records. PACER provides the public of America, with instantaneous access to more than 1 billion documents filed at all federal courts. As far as costing goes, access to case information costs $0.10 per page.
In New Zealand the judgements of the District Court are also available with a simple research in its database. But to ensure the protection of the privacy of the parties in some specific cases, the real names of the parties are replaced with pseudonyms. This is a very unique approach towards ensuring transparency and privacy at the same time.
The reason behind asking for the judgements of the District Courts to be reported online is to help the general public get an easy access to the judiciary and to help the law students understand the process of a case. District Courts are the busiest courts of all because they are the first door to knock when seeking justice. For the general public, to know their case status only two ways are available, first approach the advocate and know the status of case proceedings or try and use the E-Court app themselves. For a novice E-court can get tricky as it requires some crucial details like the court complex and case number to find a case and then even after finding it, the only information available is the stage at which the case is. One cannot access the documents and drafts as submitted by both the parties. Secondly for the law students who are studying, trial courts are the practice areas from where they will be able to understand the actual procedure of civil and criminal cases, application of laws to facts and get an idea about the judicial proceedings. Had the judgements of the District Courts become available online, even this task would have been solved as the students would simply choose a case and follow its proceedings, thereby understanding the process, laws and their application all at the same time.