Internet Access to Justice: How Going Digital Opens Up the Courts
12 Mar 2015
Public access to legal information is one of the main means of ensuring human rights protection and justice delivery. Conversely, inadequate public access to legal information creates challenges for proper service delivery by rights duty-bearers in the justice sector. As a means to address this problem, the Supreme Court, with the assistance of UNDP-JUST, has launched an online cause list and SMS-based automated case status information service for litigants. These digital initiatives are low-cost and efficient ways of broadening access to justice in Bangladesh.
Courts in Bangladesh have traditionally used cause lists (printed lists of cases awaiting a hearing) to inform litigants about the status of cases and when they will be heard. Reliance on a hard copy of the cause list kept at the court’s location meant that litigants either had to personally go to the court or pay additional fees to court staff and advocates to access information on the status of their cases. The introduction of an online cause list and means that litigants in the Supreme Court can now easily access their case history from anywhere in the world through the Supreme Court’s website (www.supremecourt.gov.bd). Litigants in the subordinate courts of the three JUST Project pilot districts can access information about their cases at the subordinate courts’ website (www.bdcourts.gov.bd). Case data is also accessible via mobile phone and SMS updates. The mobile phone service has received approximately 300,000 hits since its launch in 2014.
In addition to facilitating public access to legal information, the new online system has enhanced transparency and accountability. For judges and court officials, the system has reduced delays and court-shopping (the practice of preferential selection of hearings, often to the prejudice of one of the parties, in exchange for money) and improved case data collection and analysis. For the Chief Justice and other members of senior leadership, the system assists with monitoring the performance of judges and offers critical information for evidence-based policy responses to expedite the disposal of cases and increase public confidence in judiciary.
The online cause list also has cost-saving benefits. Speaking at a workshop for Bench Officers of the Supreme Court entitled "Electronic Cause List and Court Room Technology," Mr. SM Kuddus Zaman, former National Project Director of the JUST Project and current District Judge of Dhaka Court, highlighted the efficiencies of the new system:
"Daily, the Supreme Court has to spend four and half lakh takas to publish a printed copy of the cause list. The next day, this list becomes useless. As Bangladesh has very limited resources, eliminating the daily publication of the cause list will save money and labour. It will also contribute towards an environmentally-friendly workplace.”
Every Supreme Court Judge has a Bench Officer responsible for preparing the verdict by taking dictation from the judge and updating the cause list at the end of the day through the new web-based system. The UNDP provided ICT and English legal terminology training to all Supreme Court Bench Officers and equipped them with computers and internet to enable them to perform their day-to-day work more effectively and efficiently. The Workshop provided additional ICT training for 105 Bench Officers of the Supreme Court. The Bench Officers received a demonstration of the functions and features of the Supreme Court website and heard tips and tricks on how to easily upload case-related information to the system.
The Workshop also provided an opportunity for many Bench Officers to share their experiences in using the online cause list. One of the Workshop attendees, Mr. Rezaul Karim, has been a Supreme Court Bench Officer for the past 12 years, and served as an Assistant Bench Officer prior to that. He is associated with the Court of Mr. Justice Mostafa Zaman Islam. Prior to the Workshop, Mr. Karim received a month of computer training from the JUST project and has been using the online cause list to store case data for the past two years. He noted:
"Such workshop and training is very crucial for the Bench Officers, who can make the system more effective as we are playing very important roles in the court process. In the forum, we were able to share our problems directly to the ICT team and JUST…[T]his workshop has widened my knowledge on various court room technology.”
After attending the workshop, Bench Officer Mr. Golam Rasul of the Court of Mr. Justice Farid Ahmed, noted that the Bench Officers “did not receive such in-depth technical knowledge before from any forum. This was very useful for us and if such workshop and training can be organised on a regular basis, then certainly our efficiencies will be enhanced."Former National Project Director Mr. Zaman also used the Workshop to promote the implementation of a digital cause list in subordinate courts beyond the three pilot districts, noting that “the Bench Officers themselves have to play a pivotal role [to play] in such a situation.”
The Bangladesh Supreme Court has already prepared a plan for the national implementation of this initiative. Three more district courts are to be added to the scheme to test the technical scalability of the model. Based on the results from these district courts, the Supreme Court will expand this system to all districts of Bangladesh. The web-based case information interface will also be integrated into the national website for subordinate courts to offer easy access.
For developing countries in Asia and the Pacific, use of ICT in justice delivery is increasingly being emphasized as a means of strengthening good governance. If implemented strategically, e-Justice will not only improve the efficiency, accountability and transparency of court system, but will also empower citizens to participate in court processes.
Author: Gillian Croucher