COVID-19 and Digital Transformation of Pakistan’s Judicial System
For the foreseeable future, COVID-19 will change our way of life, our social interactions and the things we take for granted. The global pandemic has filled the news and everyday conversations with morose pieces relating to the spread of the virus and the global economic devastation that has ensued. Terms like “social distancing” and ”flattening the curve” have become part of our daily conversations.
A few days ago, my wife shared a Facebook post, seemingly part of an online thread, stating the following:
“[i]n the days ahead, when we are all going to be able to see less of each other than ever before, I believe that we need to stay connected, or become re-connected, online…”
It made me wonder about the role of COVID-19 in digital transformation and innovation, a topic that became close to my heart when I attended the Oxford Fintech Programme at Saïd Business School last year which helped me understand how technology had disrupted and revolutionized the financial industry. I began to read various pieces over the internet about how innocuously COVID-19 had become a leading factor in driving digital transformation, contributing more than any CEO, CFO, CTO (Chief Technology Officer) or CIO (Chief Innovation Officer) in any organization.
According to Forbes, “COVID-19 is a before and after moment in the digital transformation” and it will change businesses even after the pandemic ends – this in my view applies more particularly to the legal profession.
The Pakistani legal market is ripe for digital disruption. The questions is, which segment of the profession would be disrupted first and who would lead that disruption? The concept of work from home (WFH) on a primary basis within structured legal practice in Pakistan was largely non-existent and was never considered a norm globally according to The Lawyer magazine. We all have that “lawyer friend” in Pakistan who loves to set up a rustic looking study at home to burn the midnight oil and every now then indulge in a few guilty pleasures while staring at a copy of the Constitution or a portrait of Jinnah.
Before the digital disruption of the legal profession can fully take place, I am of the view that it is essential for the ecosystem to be conducive and supportive of such disruption. This necessarily means that there should be appropriate technical infrastructure and supporting regulations in place. In my view, the starting point for this should be the judicial system. The debate regarding revamping the civil and criminal justice in Pakistan has become a moot point. Any person who has visited the courts, particularly first instance courts such as the Civil, Magistrate, District and Sessions Courts, would agree that the environment is inhospitable and probably the worst to be in, even in case of an epidemic let alone an uncontrolled global pandemic. The silver lining that can be derived out of the COVID-19 situation is that it should provide the political and institutional will to address the reform of civil and criminal justice systems. While revising and revamping the entire civil or criminal procedure codes may not be at the top of the legislative agenda of governments attempting to contain the spread of the virus, the first step of reform should be initiated by the judiciary itself.
Basic digital infrastructure such as providing a computer to stenographers, setting up a website and making an online cause list and case record system is not sufficient to dispense justice. In particular, the basic case management system is archaic and a proper digital enterprise is non-existent. COVID-19 may be an opportune excuse to digitalize the criminal and civil justice system at the first instance level and introduce E-courts throughout the country. E-courts are not to be confused with connecting courts via live videolink, though there are definitely merits in having tele-courts. What is required is an electronic registry and case management system, even at the first instance level. Such a system would provide the ability to file cases, applications and case documents electronically and review case summaries and summaries of proceedings electronically without the need to physically visit the courts. The Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan’s online services portal and the Federal Board of Revenue’s Iris platform are good examples of how public services and filings can be digitalized.
In my view, digitalizing the case management system at first instance levels would not only provide useful data and information necessary to reform the civil and criminal justice system but also lead to the establishment of a more efficient case management and progress system. A registry office, similar to what we see in the High Courts and the Supreme Court, should be able to manage cases to a point where they are ready to be heard and decided. The benefits would be numerous. From a physical point of view, it would definitely avoid overcrowding in courts.
An argument often brought up against such a system is that it will create the need for slightly tech-savvy legal professionals, both lawyers and clerks, and may render many clerks redundant. Not necessarily. The introduction of the smartphone has been the biggest digital disruption witnessed during our lifetime. A E-registry or E-court system does not have to technically cumbersome. The financial industry shows how people are able to move money through the simple use of their mobile phones. A simple and clear user interface, accessed by users at the front-end, coupled with the power of distributed ledger technology or blockchain at the back-end, can make the system not only simple to use by anyone but also secure.
I have had first-hand experience of using different E-registry and E-filing systems in several jurisdictions. In my experience, they not only ease the burden on the justice system and the swarming of courts but also help make the dispensation of justice more efficient, together with increasing the productivity of legal professionals who use these systems. We have technology to help us and it would be sad to not use it, particularly in light of the current challenges being faced in terms of ensuring social distancing and curtailing the outbreak of the virus. The Coronavirus pandemic has presented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for digital transformation of the civil and criminal justice systems of Pakistan at grassroots level. It can help kickstart the long overdue comprehensive reform of the justice system.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he might be associated.