New Delhi Access to justice is a right that cannot be secured by delivering pro-people verdicts alone and must be complemented by meaningful administrative steps, Chief Justice of India (CJI) Dhananjaya Y Chandrachud said on Monday.
Explaining the holistic concept of “access to justice”, CJI Chandrachud highlighted how the use of technology, improved infrastructure, physical and functional accessibility to courtrooms, and gender-neutral measures can aid in removing a spate of barriers for the citizens.
“The complexities of law and process, the inequality between ordinary citizens and powerful adversaries, judicial delays, and the belief that the system works against marginalized communities are among the various barriers that stand in the way of equal access to justice. I realized over time that access to justice is not a right that can be secured only by crafting pro-people jurisprudence in our judgements, but rather, that it requires active progress on the administrative side of the court as well,” said justice Chandrachud.
The CJI was speaking at the inaugural event of the first regional conference of around 70 countries from Africa and the Asia-Pacific , hosted by the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) in the Capital, on the theme of “Strengthening Access to Justice in the Global South”. The International Legal Foundation, United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF are co-hosting the event. Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul is the executive chairman of NALSA while the CJI is its patron-in-chief.
The most effective weapon that the judiciary can wield to accelerate access to justice, the CJI underscored, is technology. “Today, the Supreme Court is successfully using technology in myriad ways to bring the courtroom closer to the citizens. I am certain that several of you have had the opportunity to watch the live stream of proceedings before the constitution benches of the Supreme Court. In many ways, online streaming of proceedings has taken the Supreme Court to the hearts and homes of common citizens of the country,” he added.
According to justice Chandrachud, the concerns over physical access to courtrooms ought to move beyond merely increasing the number of courtrooms or judicial officers. “Access to justice is as much about the quantity of judicial infrastructure as it is about making courtrooms a space where everyone feels welcome. An integral part of securing access to justice, therefore, is making the courtroom a space that is accessible to persons belonging to diverse communities cutting across age, gender identity, caste and economic status,” he pointed out.
The CJI said that physical and functional accessibility of court complexes must be assessed to ensure that the physical infrastructure of the court accommodates all citizens, including pregnant women, senior citizens and persons with disabilities.
As of today, nine gender-neutral restrooms have been installed at various locations within the precincts of the top court, said the CJI, adding there are steps introduced to an additional column for lawyers to mention their preferred pronouns while appearing before the court or filing documents.
“Recently, the Supreme Court acted swiftly to appoint a sign-language interpreter for a member of the bar with a hearing impairment. Such initiatives aim to ensure that individuals belonging to diverse communities, including gender minorities and persons with disabilities, are not only granted physical access to the court but are also able to express themselves authentically,” he further said.
Referring to the “extraordinary role” that the judiciary plays in increasing access to justice, justice Chandrachud said that countries from the global South, including India have developed ingenious practices to increase access to justice.
“For instance, since the early 1980s, the Supreme Court has made revolutionary attempts to increase access to justice by way of its public interest jurisprudence. The court removed procedural barriers to access the Supreme Court and allowed all citizens to approach the court for the amelioration of socio-economic injustices. This jurisprudence resulted in the Supreme Court being widely regarded as the people’s court,” he said.
“Underlying our legal system, over whose destinies we preside, is the quest for social justice for our populations,” said the CJI, adding that as judges, they have a duty not just to do justice in individual cases that come before them but to institutionalise the judicial process that looks beyond the immediate as well.