SCO Member States’ Chief Justices meeting in Delhi: Access to justice, technological advancements, response to pandemic dominate discussions at event

The Chief Justices/Chairpersons of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s member States’ agreed on a number of shared goals for the future of the judiciary of their respective nations.

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THE 18th meeting of Chief Justices and Chairpersons of the Supreme Courts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Member States was held in New Delhi under the presidency of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dr. D.Y. Chandrachud on March 10 and 11. The conference witnessed discussion on wide-ranging issues, from smart courts and access to justice, to the institutional challenges faced by the judiciary.

It was a two-day joint interaction session wherein seven of the eight SCO member States (China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan), two observer States (Iran and Belarus), the SCO Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure and the SCO Secretariat took part physically. Pakistan was the only member State that joined through video conference.

The SCO is a Eurasian political, economic, international security and defence intergovernmental organisation.

Initiating the joint sessions, CJI Dr. Chandrachud gave a brief overview of India’s judicial system. He shared the challenges faced by the judicial institution during the COVID-19 pandemic, and highlighted measures such as the adoption of technology for virtual hearings, live streaming of court proceedings and e-filing undertaken by the Indian judiciary to ensure access to justice. The CJI underscored the incorporation of technology in the Indian judicial system which, according to him, made the judicial institutions more accessible for all its citizens.

The other heads of judiciaries attending the meeting also shared the functioning of their judicial systems, and challenges faced and innovative measures taken by their respective nation’s judiciaries to minimise the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The CJI, while addressing the delegates, discussed India’s smart court initiatives. He stressed that the judicial system must ensure that timely and effective justice is delivered to all citizens, regardless of their location or socio-economic status. He said that technology must be used to bridge the gap between citizens and the justice system. He highlighted the recent endeavours made by the Supreme Court of India, such as the launching of the e-version of Supreme Court Reports, artificial intelligence (AI)-based live transcription of court proceedings, and translation of judgments in multiple regional languages, among others.

Participating in the discussion, Nail Akhmetzakirov, Chief of the Judicial Administration of the Republic of Kazakhstan, highlighted that the introduction of technology in Kazakh judicial facilities had made the court work and proceedings easy. He added that Kazakhstan has developed new software post the COVID-19 menace in order to make the judicial services more accessible through electronic means.

Rakhat Karimova, Deputy Chairwoman of the Council of Judges of the Kyrgyz Republic, informed the delegates that the judicial system of Kyrgyz Republic is focussed on the just and effective measures for the interest of people at large. She highlighted that the Krygyz judiciary, during and post the COVID-19 pandemic, had been transitioning to the electronic system with digitalisation of all enforcement bodies. Believing that the AI is the step to the future, Karimova stated that their judiciary is adopting new technologies which will expedite trials, and will also ensure the fulfilment of the duties by the judges by means of easy monitoring mechanisms, ensuring justice in real terms.

Speaking on the topic ‘Access to Justice” (Justice should not be limited to privileged): issues, initiative, and prospects’, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, the senior-most puisne judge of the Supreme Court of India, stressed the importance of access to justice. He raised concerns regarding prisons being overly populated by undertrials. He particularly emphasised that the issue of access to quality legal representation is a key element in the criminal justice system. He stressed on several mechanisms adopted by courts to resolve the problem of access to justice from both ends: first, while empowering citizens to actualise their rights under the Constitution of India and international human rights law, and second, by reforming the criminal justice machinery to protect the most vulnerable.

Joining the discussion, Xiaochen Qiann, Chief Judge of case-filing division of the Supreme People’s Court of the People’s Republic of China, added that it was of prime importance for the growth of the judiciary that modern public judicial services are built, featuring inclusiveness, equity, convenience, efficiency, intelligence and accuracy. He stressed that court work overload and limited judicial resources are a global challenge which needs to be addressed both nationally and collectively by SCO members.

Vyacheslav M. Lebedev, Chairman of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation, highlighted that several laws have been created in Russia to convenience its citizens in terms of accessing justice, including the system of claims, which can be filed by the plaintiffs at their own place of residence, allowing remote participation in court sessions, notifications via SMS regarding time and place of trial, and availability of information regarding working of the court.

Speaking on the topic ‘Institutional Challenges facing Judiciary: Delays, Infrastructure, Representation, and Transparency’, Justice K. M. Joseph, the second senior-most puisne judge of the Supreme Court of India, highlighted the issue of high pendency of cases and the need for adequate infrastructure facilities as a means to access justice. Justice Joseph raised concerns about the infrastructure gap of the court halls and residential units in the district judiciary. He also added that additional courts need to be built to efficiently deal with pending and freshly instituted cases, and concluded by adding that progress is needed to ensure India has an efficient, open and fair judicial system.

In his closing address, CJI Dr. Chandrachud stressed the need to collectively adopt new mechanisms to make court processes simpler and more accessible. He underlined that the SCO member States should strive for judicial cooperation in order to make their judicial systems more approachable to the common people. After agreement on a number of shared goals for the future of the judiciary of their respective nations, the event closed with Uzbekistan, on rotation, being collectively entrusted with the presidency for the next meeting of Chief Justices/ Chairmans of the SCO for the year 2024.

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