Justice online

Justice online

Our existing justice system is hopelessly outdated, painfully ineffective and marred with inefficiency and inordinate delays. It needs complete restructuring and modernisation but at the same time elimination of causes of litigation should be our top priority. It needs determination, vision and agenda.

Unfortunately, to make matters worse, our political leadership has neither desire nor vision for providing socio-economic justice. The society, as it exists, will remain prone to excessive litigation. The new courts and increased number of judges is no answer to the prevailing malady. The judiciary and legal fraternity has a vested interest in increased number of litigations. They will never support an agenda for reduction in litigation. Faced with this dilemma, the best one can expect is, at least, effective operational capacity of the existing judicial system that can be achieved by employing better human resource and application of latest technology.

In recent years, the establishment of e-courts in many countries have revolutionised the process of dispensation of justice. In Pakistan, Lahore High Court started use of information technology (IT) as early as in April, 1991 when a Computer Cell was inaugurated -- this was the first ever use of modern technology in any judicial department in Pakistan. Since then, substantial progress has been seen in all courts in the use of IT tools for swift disposal of cases and curtailing the backlog. At the moment, application of IT is to the extent of displaying cause-lists on websites of Supreme Court and High Courts, providing vital information related to judiciary and judicial process as well as reporting of important cases. However, the goal of accelerating disposal of cases through e-courts and mobile e-benches is still a dream.

The Indian Supreme Court started e-courts project in 2005 aimed at computerising all courts including taluk (local) courts. The project, during the last eight years, has shown some success.

In Pakistan, National Judiciary Automation Committee (NJAC) has taken many good initiatives towards computerisation of processes since 2010. Both India and Pakistan are just concentrating on automating the processes, which is no doubt good work. However, the real need is that of establishing e-courts and e-benches along with a facility to record statements of witnesses through video conferences, filing papers online, and conducting hearings using IT technology which alone can help in accelerating the process of speedy disposal of cases and making it cost-effective. In these areas, the western countries are far ahead while all South Asian states are still lagging behind.

In Pakistan, for establishing e-benches, a beginning can be made from tax appellate apparatus that can be treated as a pilot project. The establishment of e-benches can reduce pendency of tax appeals and save substantial amount of taxpayers’ money needed for setting up physical offices at different places. The establishment of e-benches can definitely help in delivering justice at the litigants’ doorstep.

Presently, pendency of appeals in Tax Tribunal is over 30,000. If a bench is not functioning in a particular place, say in Multan, in case of an emergency for stay of recovery, the taxpayer is compelled to file an application in Lahore and bear the cost of travelling, boarding, lodging etc. For those in remote areas, situated far away from the nearest available tribunal bench, it’s both costly and time consuming.

The working of e-bench of Appellate Tribunal Inland Revenue and Customs Appellate Tribunal would help taxpayers, tax consultants and tax administration. For example, appeals at Faisalabad, Multan, Sialkot and Gujranwala can be heard at e-bench of tribunal at Lahore. The consultants and departmental representatives at these places could visit the nearest tax office and present their case. Members sitting at Lahore can hear the case through video conferencing and pronounce their judgment. Establishment of e-benches can be extended to all cities of Pakistan where tax offices exist but the tribunal has no establishment.

Income-tax Appellate Tribunal, established on 25th January, 1941, after independence, was retained by India and Pakistan as such, except that we changed the nomenclature to Appellate Tribunal Inland Revenue (ATIR) on 28 October 2009 through a Presidential Ordinance in the wake of amalgamation of income tax and sales tax into one unified group. The Tribunal, which has already completed 72 years of its existence, is considered as mother of all tribunals.

In Pakistan, it has permanent seats at Lahore, Islamabad, Peshawar and Karachi. In India, it has 27 stations and 63 benches. Since Customs and Inland Revenue Tribunals deal with federal taxes, these should be merged and upgraded as National Tax Court, working directly under the Supreme Court. This would relieve High Courts of undue workload of tax cases. Two-tier tax appellate system -- as is the case with Federal Service Tribunal -- will ensure speedy disposal of cases involving state revenues.

There is not only a dire need to convert existing tax tribunals into National Tax Court, but also transform them into e-tribunals using modern technology. In India, an initiative in this direction has already been taken. The author of this initiative very aptly observed: "what was in the realm of fantasy till yesterday is now in the realm of reality thanks to the forward-looking approach adopted by the tribunal".

The Tax Tribunals in Pakistan are grappling with the problems of paucity of members and the increasing case load. It is time that Ministry of Law initiates setting up e-benches to solve the problem. This would help clear the pendency of cases and bring justice to the taxpayers’ doorstep. If the concept is successful, it can be extended to the High Courts and the Supreme Court. This can be the best initiative to revamp the tax justice system in Pakistan -- the only prerequisite is willingness on the part of Ministry of Law & Justice to replace the outdated setup with modern apparatus for the benefit of people.

The federal law secretary should immediately consult chairmen of Tax Tribunals and their members to take concrete measures to establish e-tribunal for better administration of justice. For this purpose, an interactive meeting should be held between the chairmen of Tax Tribunals, their members, representatives of tax bars and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). They should constitute special committees to give proposals as to how the concept of e-tribunal could immensely benefit the taxpayers, tax administration and tax consultants.

In Pakistan, setting up e-benches of Tax Tribunals will not require substantial spending as existing facilities in Customs Houses, Large Taxpayers Units (LTUs) and Regional Tax Offices (RTOs) can be utilised. This would enable the consultants to represent the matter from their own city. This, apart from facilitating taxpayers and tax consultants, would reduce the pendency of cases, save substantial capital and recurring expenditure of the government which can be used for more productive purposes. Above all, there would be complete transparency in justice delivery system. Recording of the proceedings would eliminate any chance of malpractice or allegation of miscarriage of justice.

In many countries, there is an even more exciting initiative called e-mobile court that is a specially designed vehicle having facility of e-library, with all modern technology and as soon as the hearing is over, judgment is delivered to both the parties. This brings transparency and eliminates delay in the justice delivery system. If the concept of e-mobile court is implemented, justice will be at the doorstep of every citizen in Pakistan. Through this mechanism, litigants could get justice within six months of filing of petition or suit in the respective tribunal/court. In Pakistan, it can bring a revolution in the justice delivery system, provided the Supreme Court makes it a priority item on its agenda of judicial reform.

There is an urgent need to establish e-tribunals, e-courts, e-benches and e-mobile courts. It is time that Chief Justice of Pakistan, Chief Justices of High Courts, chairmen of all tribunals, the Ministry of Law and Justice, professional bodies of lawyers, media and civil society join hands for reforming our existing outdated and pathetic judicial system.

The writers, lawyers and authors of many books, are Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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