The Covid-19 crisis has tremendously increased the use of internet and accelerated the digitalisation of many businesses and services through introducing teleworking and video conferencing in different sectors. Just after the outbreak of the coronavirus, many countries having e-readiness took immediate steps to conduct judicial proceedings online. Bangladesh also embarked upon its journey of conducting judicial proceedings through virtual courts on 11 May, 2020.
The initiative of introducing virtual courts has already been praised by many, and to make this initiative more effective, introducing digital payment of fees (chargeable under the Court Fees Act 1870, compensation and fines leviable under the Civil Procedure Code 1908 and the Criminal Procedure Code 1998) applying Mobile Financial Service (MFS) is now felt necessary. Otherwise, the objective of introducing virtual courts may remain incomplete.
During the outbreak of the pandemic, the MFS has turned into one of the major tools of payment for individuals as most of the financial activities have gone online. Moreover, mobile phones are also becoming more accessible across the country and it is time to use these devices to boost up the economy. According to the BTRC, the total number of mobile phone subscribers has reached 162.920 million at the end of this April, while the number of active internet connections has crossed the landmark of 10 crore this year.
It is to mention that the Court Fees Act, 1870 was amended in 2016 making provision for collection of fees electronically or digitally. According to section 25 of the Act, the government may appoint, in addition to scheduled banks, any MFS providers to receive court fees including fees chargeable for serving and executing processes issued by a certificate-officer in the proceedings in execution of certificates filed for recovery of land revenue or rent collectible in cash, electronically or digitally. In that case, MFS providers who receive fees shall be required to grant a receipt or e-receipt accordingly. The Act also mandates the government to make necessary rules, from time to time, for regulating the collection of such fees through MFS. However, the provision is yet to be implemented.
It is high time the amended provision of the Act was implemented as transactions through MFS accounts are increasing every year due to the rising acceptance of digital payments by private and public entities. Even amidst this coronavirus outbreak, the MFS was resorted to disburse the stimulus packages announced by the government which include BDT 5,000 crore for payment of salaries of RMG workers and BDT 1,250 crore cash assistance among five million poor families hit hard by the pandemic. According to Bangladesh Bank, through MFS accounts there was average daily transaction of Tk. 1,425.34 and Tk. 1,283.39 crore in February and March of this year respectively and total number of active MFS accounts have reached 26.845 million till March of this year.
In addition to the foregoing, the government may issue directives for collection of compensation, fines, stamp duties and registration fees through MFS which will ensure more revenue collection for the government and contribute to the reduction of corruption as well. If such fees and fines are collected through MFS, litigants will be able to pay fees or fines relating to the suit or case without hassles and the judiciary will be able to make its accounts more transparent.
With the vision of Digital Bangladesh, the use of technology is currently reshaping every government level operation. It is expected that the government will take all necessary measures to introduce digital payment system through MFS accounts in the country's judicial system. Bangladesh Bank has to come up with necessary directives for MFS providers to ease the collection of revenues through MFS accounts. The Supreme Court may also come up with a short-term, mid-term, and long-term action plan to introduce digital payment system in all courts across the country and make virtual courts sustainable.
Though the need for virtual courts only arose due to the unprecedented outbreak of the pandemic, the demand for e-judiciary is long awaited. The law ministry had taken a project worth Tk. 2,690 crore to establish e-judiciary even last year. The abstract idea of stepping into e-judiciary is now seemingly real with the enactment of the new Act. While we cannot predict how long the crisis will last, introduction of digital payment for collection of fees, fines or compensation would make the initiative of virtual court or e-judiciary more effective and successful.
THE WRITER IS CORPORATE LEGAL PRACTITIONER.