How can technology revive judicial independence in Bangladesh?
Judicial Independence allows judges to decide honestly and impartially without fear of any undue influence from the government. It is one of the pillars of separation of powers which is key to good governance. It is judicial independence which is responsible for upholding the "rule of law"—a fundamental principle of democracy. A society cannot function without rule of law, hence strengthening the judiciary must be of prime importance for any government.
Judicial Independence in Bangladesh has long been subjected to threat and has become vulnerable over time. Its significance has only recently been realised even though the Constitution guaranteed it long back. Judiciary has been separated from the executive in 2007, that too due to the efforts of a single lower court judge. Corruption, administrative policies and untimely amendments to the Constitution have played equal role in its deterioration. It has become almost impossible for the judiciary to be set free from the clutch of corrupt root-level officials.
Corruption has always been a major threat to judicial independence. The lower judiciary is polluted by corruption among ground-level officials. Justice seekers are captive at the hands of these court officials at every step of a proceeding. They are left with no choice but to bribe them for getting a work done that can otherwise be obtained free of cost. The process is simple—pay money at each department before you finally get what you are seeking. What these helpless litigants fail to realise is that these officers are already paid by the Government to render them service. Bribery has become a norm and litigants have become desensitised to it.
According to a survey conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB), it is the judiciary which turned out to be the most corrupt among service sectors in the country. Its image has been tarnished over the years by dishonest court clerks, employees and brokers. Widespread bribery has been the main culprit behind prevention of access to justice and delay in court process. Reports of such accounts are alarming.
However, with a systematic approach, this can be tackled. Technology can play a determining factor in the revival of judicial independence and fighting corruption. ICT has an ever-increasing role in the management and administration of justice. While several judicial systems of the subcontinent have already embraced some of the advantages of technology, ICT in the Bangladesh judiciary has always been underutilised. It is one sector that was never given enough attention by the authority.
Technology may become an important weapon to combat corruption in the judiciary. According to the current President of the Supreme Court Bar Association A M Aminuddin, "digitalisation at the all the departments at the Supreme Court will help reduce graft." (Dhaka Tribune, 2019). By facilitating the flow of information between the Judiciary and the public, technology can trigger an everlasting change in the country's justice system.
The current paper-based judicial system creates abundant opportunities for dishonest officials. Technology is upgrading the judiciary around the world and Bangladesh must step up to join the tide.
A PAPERLESS JUDICIARY
In the judiciary, paper is power. This is where dishonest clerks cash in to ask for bribe from justice seekers. They simply withhold a document asking for a price for it to be released to the litigant. Without payment, one would simply have to wait for ages to get hold of it. These clerks put up an excuse that the fee is required for their hard work in finding out the paper from dusty old bundles. Whereas the paper they are looking for might just be lying on their desk, hiding in plain sight! The helpless litigants are somehow lured into paying a hefty amount for getting their work done promptly. All this for getting hold of a piece of paper relevant to their case at the court.
As ambitious as it may sound but transforming this age-old analogue system into a digital one would create a significant impact on the judiciary. Our courts should explore the digital possibilities like any other jurisdiction. By going paperless, the judiciary will not only be corruption free but can function more efficiently. It can reduce costs drastically and boost delivery of justice. The cost of filing and time will be saved by an e-filing procedure which would allow litigants to file online comfortably from their homes. They can submit their documents online which will be securely stored in a cloud storage, thereby reducing the possibility of them going into wrong hands. They can access relevant information by simply logging into the database. Piles of paperwork would be reduced, and documents can easily be referred to without having to rummage through jumbles of documents. Courts in some Indian states have already gone paperless including the Delhi High Court. With its ongoing progress, it will not be long for the entire Indian Judiciary to be digitalised. This leaves Bangladesh and its other neighbours under peer pressure to do the same.
JUDICIAL CASE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM
The courts may be equipped with case management software which will help to manage the number of cases successfully. A well-designed computer software like this would allow case tracking, data entry, record keeping and document assembly. It will greatly assist in case indexing and document retrieval which are essential in the courts. Case management software are widely used in the United States and the United Kingdom. It was first used in Minnesota, USA in the early 1980s with its Trial Court Information System (TCIS) for its District Courts. Federal Court of Australia is now considered to be the global leader in managing digitised court documents.
Court documents of all sorts will be available in one place, integrated into a single system. It will prove advantageous in handling paperwork, which will be uploaded in a database. The centralised database would mean documents can also be remotely accessed. The system will allow multiple users to view the documents within a network at the same time. The overall workload of the courts will greatly be reduced.
Introducing a judicial case management system in the Bangladesh judiciary would ward off dishonest court officials withholding court documents from litigants. It will increase transparency in all processes. In fact, one would not need to rely on them for retrieving a paper as it would be just a click away. According to a UNDP project in Montenegro, the country's judiciary has seen consistent improvement due to their Judicial Information System (PRIS). The project titled, "Improving the Efficiency of Justice through the use of ICT" has gained considerable appreciation in promoting the concept of paperless court in Montenegro.
UNDP arranged a workshop in Bangladesh under a similar theme, particularly on digitalisation of the judiciary back in 2015. This was where the executive director of Bangladesh Computer Council first disclosed the plans for a proposed eJudiciary project with the Government of Bangladesh. At present UNDP is running its project "Access to Information" or "a2i" and Judicial Strengthening project (JUST) that is working hand in hand with the Bangladesh government.
REMOTE PARTICIPATION (VIDEO CONFERENCING)
Individuals charged with an offence and taken under custody can attend court remotely via video link. This has been in practice in the United Kingdom for more than twenty years now. Prisoners will be able to appear at the court without having to leave custody. Video conferencing according to Justice.gov.uk means, "A witness at a remote location may give his/her evidence via a video link to the court with one screen and one camera in the courtroom." It reduces the requirement for transporting a defendant from the prison to the court on a regular basis. If it is introduced in Bangladesh, it will have a great impact on the country's criminal justice system. Individuals awaiting trial are brought to the Dhaka Judge Court from the Central Jail in Keraniganj every day for their attendance or "Hajira". Given the daily traffic congestion, it greatly consumes the court's time. If video conferencing is applied, a "Hajira" can be given from Keraniganj jail without the accused having to come to the Judge's court.
When the accused are brought to the court, dishonest court officials and even some lawyers tend to ask for money from their families visiting them. They give false hopes of bail or visitation in order to make a quick income. The loved ones of the accused invest heavily on these touts without verifying the authenticity of such promises. They are lured into paying money for the facility they would've otherwise gotten free of cost. Thus, they fall into a never-ending loop of outrageous demands by these fraudsters at every hearing. Video conferencing may completely remove this possibility.
ONLINE COMPLAINT REPORTING
If a litigant is unhappy with a court clerk or a member of the staff regarding their conduct, they can file a complaint online. This is the simplest among the three ideas which may be implemented right now. The official website of the judiciary would have a dedicated complaint form that can be accessed from anywhere. The HM Courts and Tribunals Service of the UK Government has an online form on their website. It goes into asking minute details about the experience of the complainant.
A website containing such service would be largely welcomed in Bangladesh. Complainants can fill up the details of the corrupt activity of the court official. The details of the complainant will be verified and kept confidential. The purpose of this is to identify and bring the dishonest individuals to justice.
For it to be effective, a diligent team must always be present to receive the complaints. The team would then report to the respective authority who would take the necessary actions against that individual. Complaints like these would only be fruitful if there is collective effort from the Government in eradicating corruption once and for all. The recent initiatives undertaken by the Government are ambitious and we can hope for a better judiciary soon.
VISION 2021 AND THE JUDICIARY
Alongside graduating to a middle-income country, a major part of this campaign comprises of the "Digital Bangladesh" philosophy. The Digital Bangladesh project aims to ensure, among others, establishment of justice and transparency through maximum use of technology to improve the lifestyle of the citizens. Some of its initiatives extend to the Judiciary as well. With the a2i and JUST working together to promote innovation in the judiciary, they have created a platform where litigants can look up their case information. Although in its initial stage, such move is worthy of appreciation.
The law ministry has taken a project worth Tk 2,690 crore to establish e-judiciary last year. As expressed by the Honourable Law Minister, the ministry will "introduce digital system in judiciary, automate administrative system and trial process, establish e-courts and increase ICT knowledge and efficiency of the judges, lawyers and officials concerned." A spokesperson of the ministry told The Daily Star newspaper that "A total of 1,400 courtrooms across the country would be turned into e-courtrooms. Two thousand tabs and laptops will be provided to judges, court record rooms will be automated, case records and verdicts will be preserved digitally, and a biometric attendance system will be established." (The Daily Star, 2019). Surprisingly, this does not end here.
The project will also include enterprise resource planning (ERP) software, video conferencing, recording digital evidence, establishing Virtual Private Network (VPN), upgradation of data centre of Law and Justice Division (The Daily Star, 2019). As this ambitious project awaits a final nod from the Executive Committee of the National Economic Council, we wait patiently for our dream to come true.
Corruption is not only eroding judicial independence, but public faith in the justice system. Technology can play a vital role in promoting transparency and judicial independence in Bangladesh. It will reshape our perspective of court procedures positively. Introducing technology at the court would mean Judges and lawyers striving to acquire competence in order to keep up with it. This in turn would boost productivity and efficiency will prevail in the bar and the bench. The change will bring a positive difference for people coming to the court to seek redress.
The Digital Bangladesh campaign did not deprive the Judiciary of its fair share of projects, as it is an equally important institution. The Government's plans to build necessary infrastructure to make room for modern technology in the courts is truly inspiring. With these brilliant initiatives being implemented, Judicial Independence would thrive in all its grandeur.
Aiman R Khan is an advocate and accredited mediator. Email: [email protected]