Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud said on Friday the COVID-19 pandemic forced the judicial system to adopt modern methods to impart justice and the goal now must be to evolve judicial institutions and not wait for another pandemic to take active decisions.

Speaking at the 18th meeting of the Chief Justices of the Supreme Courts of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) member states, Chandrachud highlighted the steps taken by the Indian judiciary with the onset of the pandemic.

He said since the pandemic, the district courts in India heard 16.5 million cases, the high courts 7.58 million cases, while the Supreme Court heard 3,79,954 cases through video-conference.

"In conclusion, the pandemic forced the judicial system to adopt modern methods to impart justice. But our goal must lie in evolving our judicial institutions as a matter of principle, and not wait for another pandemic to take active decisions," the CJI said at a joint interactive session.

The Supreme Court and the High Courts also actively monitored the areas of human rights violations during the pandemic, he said. The Supreme Court is hosting the 18th meeting of the chief justices of the Supreme Courts of the SCO member states here from March 10 to 12 with a view to developing judicial cooperation among them.

The SCO members include China, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Afghanistan, Belarus, Iran and Mongolia constitute the SCO observers while Armenia, Azerbaijan, Cambodia and Nepal are the SCO dialogue partners.

According to reliable sources in the apex court, the representatives of Pakistan attended the meet virtually. Besides the CJI, Supreme Court Judges Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Justice K M Joseph, among others, would address the meet on topics including "Facilitating 'Access to Justice': Issues, Initiative, and Prospects" and "Institutional Challenges facing Judiciary: Delays, Infrastructure, Representation and Transparency".

In his address, the CJI said, "Various challenges were thrown up by the COVID-19 pandemic to our judicial system. Lockdowns amid the pandemic crisis and social distancing disturbed the smooth day-to-day functioning of the courts and the entire justice delivery system in India. Physical appearances in courts by the lawyers and litigants were disallowed due to strict safety protocols for COVID-19. The very concept of 'Access to Justice' was adversely affected."

He said the Supreme Court of India, with a vision for ensuring easy access to courts and effective delivery of justice, prepared a roadmap and came up with various initiatives including accelerating the move towards e-courts and adoption of a systematic approach towards technological integration through which virtual hearings were started in the Indian judicial system for the first time.

The rapid response of the apex court in adopting technology and devising e-courts, online hearings via video-conferencing, standard operating procedure for urgent hearings, live streaming, and e-filing ensured that interruption in the court functioning was brief, he said.

"The Supreme Court and high courts took suo-motu cognisance and entertained several letter petitions in various public interest issues which arose during pandemic such as crisis relating to migrant labourers, decongestion of jails to prevent overcrowding and spread of COVID- 19 infection, free testing of COVID-19 for patients from economically weaker sections, safety measures for under trial prisoners such as quarantine and virtual appearance before courts," the CJI said.

Justice Chandrachud said while the circumstances may have changed, the Supreme Court of India, after having recognised the benefits derived from the adoption of measures for judicial efficiency, continues to foster the path of digitisation.

"The incorporation of technology in the Indian judicial system has not only made the judicial institutions more accessible for all its citizens but it has also acted as a tool to reach out to those who lack access to technology. With virtual/ hybrid hearings, advocates or litigants can appear before the courts from any part of the country to argue their case," he said.

Speaking about the recent initiatives of the Supreme Court like live streaming of constitutional cases and utilising Artificial Intelligence software for live transcription of hearings and translation of judgments in multiple languages, the CJI said this will ensure transparency in judicial proceedings.

At the outset, he gave an outline of the judicial system of the country and said, "In India, we follow a unified and integrated system of judiciary with the Supreme Court of India at the top, followed by High Courts in each state, and various other courts at the district and local levels".

The CJI said this conference that acknowledges the shared traditions of justice and cooperation between judiciaries of the SCO member countries is a milestone in enhancing access to justice. According to a press statement issued by the apex court on Thursday, the Chief Justices or Chairpersons of the Supreme Courts of SCO member states have been invited to attend the meeting.

The three-day meet is scheduled to have discussions on 'Smart Courts' and the future of the Judiciary; Facilitating 'Access to Justice'; Institutional Challenges facing Judiciary: Delays, Infrastructure, Representation, and Transparency, it had said.

The release had said the SCO was created in 2001 on the basis of "Shanghai five" formed by Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, China, Russia and Tajikistan and its main goal is to strengthen mutual trust, friendship and good neighbourliness, encouraging effective cooperation in several areas among the member states.

With PTI Inputs