Mandatory e-filing plunges lower courts into chaos
Since September 2023, Maharashtra’s lower courts mandated e-filing to streamline processes and reduce paperwork. However, issues like server downtimes, website malfunctions, and poor bandwidth have caused significant delays
MUMBAI: In September 2023, e-filing was made mandatory in Maharashtra’s lower courts with the aim of going paperless and making the judicial process smoother. However stumbling blocks like frequent server downtimes, website malfunctions, challenges in the litigants’ oath-taking process and poor bandwidth have been rife, resulting in delays of months before the litigants get their first returnable date.
It’s not just the litigants that are stressed and put to financial loss because of the new system. Lawyers too are tearing their hair out. “It is complete madness. One now has to file and forget, not file and fret,” said advocate Tanveer Nizam of the Bombay city civil and sessions court (BCC&SC). “The three primary objectives of this exercise were convenience, speed and response but the system had failed to achieve even 50 percent of what was intended.”
On January 2, 2024, the Bar Association of BCC&SC addressed a letter to the principal sessions judge, highlighting the difficulties faced by lawyers in e-filing. The same day, over 200 advocates practising in the family court at Bandra mailed a letter to the e-committees of the Supreme Court and the Bombay high court and marked a copy to the Chief Justice of India, the Chief Justice of the high court and the principal judge of the family court, outlining the issues encountered in the e-filing process along with a few suggestions for its improvement. But though more than a month has elapsed, there has been no acknowledgment of, or response to, these letters.
“We are constantly requesting the authorities to allow a hybrid mode of filing. Often there are cases that require an urgent hearing but filing gets delayed because the server is down most of the time,” said advocate Ravi Prakash Jadhav, president of the association. “We are not against e-filing, which we consider a progressive move. However, seamless implementation requires resources that the lower courts currently lack—proper infrastructure, quality servers, a dedicated system, smooth network and trained staff.”
Jadhav added that training was given. “However, the hour-long training was not enough to understand the complexity of the process,” he said. “Moreover, the people handling the e-filing are neither well trained nor well equipped to solve all the queries.”
Advocate Nizam said that e-filing ideally needed to be open 24x7 for a streamlined process. “But the website does not allow advocates to file on weekends while on weekdays, it stops working or begins crashing after 6 pm,” he said. “Ideally, we should be able to file in 10 minutes but it often takes hours on end, and the client just sits there the entire day, bearing unnecessary costs.”
Advocate Zeeshan Khan pointed out that filing was especially cumbersome when the matter was bulky. “E-filing becomes a Herculean task because we have to scan all those pages. Annexing the documents also becomes an issue, as there is a cap on the size of the documents being uploaded,” he said, adding that despite doing all of this, some courtrooms demanded a physical copy as well.
Advocate Shraddha Dalvi called the execution of the idea “a mockery of the system”. “Such technology requires the court authorities to outsource to individuals with technical knowledge,” she said. “The prerequisite for e-filing is electricity at the court, but courts in Kalyan and Vasai face the problem of load-shedding. We have been trying to communicate these fundamental problems, but there is neither any improvement nor any effort to take feedback from people using the system.”
According to the advocates, the concept of e-filing was first introduced in 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic but was scrapped because of the same basic issues that are being encountered today.
Advocate Kavita Durgapal narrated how she was forced to shuttle between courts for one document. “I got my e-filing done through the department at the sessions court in Fort,” she said. “E-filing has to reflect across courts, which it does. But when I went to the Vikhroli court, my application did not load because the server was down. The next day, I went back but while my application got uploaded, it did not reflect in the department’s computer system because their server was down.”
Durgapal said that since the matter was important, she went again the next day and the day after. “Finally, when the server was aligned, the judicial clerk told me that the application was not acceptable, as one document was missing,” she said. “I suggested that I show a physical copy to the judge during the hearing, but the clerk was adamant and asked me to go back to the sessions court in Fort and re-do the entire process. Incidents like these not only waste litigants’ time and money but also ruin advocates’ reputation and the trust their clients have in them.”
Advocate Manoj Gowd pointed out that there were several issues with using punctuation marks and special characters. “This process becomes especially tedious when there is an anticipatory bail application,” he said. “The process here needs to be rapid because there is an apprehension of arrest, but the way this system works, it defeats the purpose.”
Litigants are the most affected by the erratic functioning of the system. “We come whenever our advocate calls us,” said a litigant. “This e-filing often wastes our entire day because advocates upload and re-upload documents and all we do is sit and stare cluelessly. We have to pay them for all the extra days that go into this.”
Several court clerks stated that they were the worst hit by the new process. “Many of us have even lost our jobs,” said one. “We have done physical filing for the last 25-30 years and we are now suddenly being forced to understand such a complex system in such a short time. It is not possible.”
When contacted, the principal judge and the registrar of the BCC&SC refused to comment.