Virtual Court: A Visual Ray of Responsive Judiciary in Bangladesh
Md. Zakir Hossain:
The judiciary of Bangladesh has taken a giant leap introducing virtual courts across the country to hear urgent cases during corona pandemic. The right to protection of law and access to justice are fundamental rights which are enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh. Meaningful access to justice has always been considered a cornerstone of the rule of law. Since 26 March, 2020 all courts and tribunals except judicial magistracy for regular work have been closed due to unprecedented crisis. The Supreme Court, guardian of the constitution and justice, has taken decision to open courts for emergency hearing and requested to government for legal solution. The Government and Ministry of Law have shown a keen interest to promulgate the historical ordinance titled “The Usage of Information and Technology in Court Ordinance-2020”.
This ordinance has only 5 sections. According to section 3 of the ordinance, “any court can serve orders, judgments, holds trial, inquiry, appellate hearings, arguments, evidence placement after ensuring virtual presence of justice seeking groups or their lawyers and eyewitnesses through audio, video or any electronic medium.” Section 5 of this Ordinance is very effective and empowers the Supreme Court to issue practice direction (special and general) from time to time to make this law effective for ends of justice [Hossain: 2020].This law supersedes all other existing laws, including the Code of Criminal Procedure and the Code of Civil Procedure. Ensuring the virtual presence of any person is deemed to comply with the mandatory provision of the physical presence of that person under the Code of Criminal Procedure or the Code of Civil Procedure or any other law [Murshed: 2020].
In the context of coronavirus pandemic, Bangladesh has started its journey of conducting judicial proceedings through virtual courts on 12 May 2020. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has already issued [three] practice directives for the Appellate Division (AD), the High Court Division (HCD) and the subordinate Courts for conducting judicial proceedings through video conferencing. In its first virtual hearing over a writ petition, the HCD has issued directives to stop the killing of dolphins in Halda Riverand later on the HCD framed an effective committee to save dolphins though virtual hearing.
The Judicial Magistracy, Court of Sessions and other tribunals throughout the country have shown a great interest and enthusiasm which was welcomed and accepted to all quarters of stakeholders. The leading media applauds highly about the initiatives and activities of the judiciary which have been performed within a short notice and without preparation having no digital judicial access in the courts yet. Even though this system is new in Bangladesh, it is already prevalent in different countries of the world. Despite the delay, the judiciary of Bangladesh has taken the initiative to take advantage of technology. There is no alternative to building a dynamic and participatory justice system to keep pace with the ever-modernising world. Certainly judiciary has done a great job responding to restore the rights of people which was suspended due to closure of the courts.
In last seven working days till May 20, 2020 after introducing of the new Ordinance, the Supreme Court and Subordinate Courts have actively participated on virtual hearings. The advocates and other stakeholders have also co-operated and co-ordinated with this great work. In the High Court Divisions, four benches have conducted courts and some eventual writ petitions have been heard and ordered accordingly. 112 accused was enlarged by two high court benches.
A good number of virtual courts have been working in this period. All Sessions Judge Courts, Tribunals and Judicial Magistracy haveconducted virtual courts and disposed of 28,394 bail petitions whereas 18,585 accused and 205 children wereenlarged on bail considering allegation, custody and other grounds in last 7 working days. On averagein every working day, the subordinate courts have disposed of 4056 bail petitions after virtual hearing and number of granted bail 2655. It was a huge work regarding installation of Apps, making virtual courts, train up supporting staffs, accommodating with the local bar and lawyers, completing judicial process through online court system and uploading as well as sending orders to concerned within a short span of time.These activities of the judiciary are the beginning of a long journey towards a sustainable e-judiciary.
The operation of virtual courts was not pre-planned decision. Responding to the national crisis to establish the rights of citizen and rule of law, judiciary has taken such revolutionary step.In 30 countries of the globe including India, Pakistan, Nepal, Singapore, Malaysia, Turkey, UK, USA, Canada and Australia have already introduced virtual court system due to corona crisis in a few months ago. USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Turkey, Malaysia, Singapore having e-judicial system and digitization of judiciary are the hallmark of the world. India and Pakistan have introduced e-judiciary in few years ago and e-filing along with hearing has been conducted in various courts of those countries regularly.
In Bangladesh, we are thinking about e-Judiciary. There is no visible development introducing digitization and e-Judiciary in the courts though the government has a project of Tk 2,690 crore to 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 [Hossain: 2020]. The Supreme Court has a strategic plan to introduce digitization in the judicial system within the year of 2021 and the government has also plan to make ‘Digital Bangladesh’ in all sectors of the country within 2021. As a Constitutional organ, without invoking technology in our judicial system, ‘Digital Bangladesh’ will not be completed. Recently our veteran law minister has stated that the government will institutionalize the judiciary with digital facilities introducing e-Judiciary and making legal changes and amendments for taking digital evidence in courts within a short time. The honourable Chief Justice and Minister of Law have a great contribution and visible response to initiate virtual courts in this time.
With the advent of digitalisation, the world has witnessed not only technological revolution but also sophisticated, critical, digital and more organised means of committing crimes. Unfortunately, our orthodox procedural laws have had a paralysing impact on justice disposal system in these changed circumstances. In Bangladesh, no specific insertions have been made for the admission of digital evidence. However, special laws like the Information and Communication Technology Act of 2006 and the Digital Security Act of 2018 have been enacted [Deb: 2019]. To make this Ordinance effective using technology in the courts, therefore, the Supreme Court has taken the initiative to make necessary amendments to the Rules of High Court Division and Appellate Division for conducting judicial proceedings in the virtual courts. The Evidence Act, 1872, applies in both civil and criminal matters. The civil procedural laws and criminal procedural laws, along with the Court Fees Act, need to be carefully examined. Hence, it is crucial to consider the entire gamut of law in conducting the virtual courts in Bangladesh[Murshed: 2020]. The special committee for judicial reform of the Supreme Court has worked actively to carry out the challenges of virtual courts and e-Judiciary.
The corona pandemic may be prolonged for more few months even year. For introducing other privileges in the courts of the country is a need of hour. E-filing system in both criminal and civil matters, surrender of accused in criminal cases, hearing of emergency petitions on different matters such as remand hearing, application on showing arrest, examination of alamat, injunction petitions and others, recording evidence in emergency matters etc should be added with the jurisdiction of virtual courts. The Judges and Magistrates of the subordinate judiciary have aptly shown about their capacity and skills to work virtually in such crisis time of the nation getting virtual training through UNDP and having poor facilities. The authority should take initiative to allocate proper budget and provide training to cope with the challenges of the virtual court system.
This initiative of setting-up a virtual court is a timely and welcome move by the Supreme Court. To list a few benefits, conducting cases through video conferencing in such a crisis would certainly mitigate the spread of the toxic Covid-19 in courts, ease the functionality of judges and may even give shape to the true meaning of access to justice by making access to courts cheaper and more efficient[Sattar&Choyon: 2020].Since access to justice is fundamental for ensuring the rule of law, therefore, the initiative of introducing virtual courts in Bangladesh is praiseworthy. The Supreme Court of Bangladesh has taken a great challenge with the limited resources and digital infrastructures for implementing virtual courts during this Covid-19 pandemic [Murshed: 2020]. The Journey towards e-Judiciary and digitization of judicial system will be reached in the destination with the leadership of this responsive judiciary which they have already shown to people.
- The Usage of Information and Technology in Court Ordinance-2020 (Ordinance no-1 of 2020).
- Murshed (2020), Dr. Md. Mahboob ‘Virtual Courts in Bangladesh: Prospects and challenges’, the Article was published in the daily Star on May 18, 2020.
- Hossain (2020), Md. Zakir ‘Virtual Court: A Great Leap Forward’, the Article was published in the daily Sun on May 19, 2020.
- Sattar, Md. Sameer &Choyon, Md. Khademul Islam (2020), “Covid-19 and virtual courts: Are we ready?” Published in the daily Financial Express, April 23, 2020.
- Deb (2019), Rajib Kumar ‘Admissibility of digital evidence’, the write up was published in the daily Star on August 27, 2019.
- Mamun, Abdullah Al ‘আদালতেরভার্চুয়ালকার্যক্রম :প্রাসঙ্গিকভাবনা, Article in Bangla language was published in website of Lawyers Club Bangladesh.Com on May 15, 2020. I have inspired of some thoughts of this writing and stated in this Article.
- The Strategic Plan 2017-22 of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh
- The website of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, for practice directives and official order to perform virtual courts
- The Judicial Web Portal for virtual courts. Available at <http://mycourt.judiciary.org.bd/users/login>
- আমারআদালত – ভার্চুয়ালকোর্টরুমঅনলাইনপ্রশিক্ষণ, Online Training Course on Virtual Court by a2i, PMO, Bangladesh. Available at <http://www.muktopaath.gov.bd/course-details/249>
- The daily ProthomAlo, May-11, 14, 15, 17, 19, 20 of 2020
- The daily Samakal, Editorial page, May 17, 2020
: The writer is a member of Bangladesh Judicial Service & Senior Judicial Magistrate, Feni.