At a time when the conventional means of conducting daily activities has become next to impossible, a country's administration faces the biggest challenge to keep things in order.
The government departments who are largely dependent on physical participation are now facing major disruptions due to the pandemic. All offices, including the parliament, are now closed to prevent further spread of the deadly virus.
As Bangladesh enters into its second month of the lockdown, the government is looking for alternative ways to run its day to day activities. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has welcomed the use of technology in daily activities which has proved to be a timely response to the ongoing crisis.
Digital Bangladesh, a brainchild of the prime minister, is currently reshaping every government level operation. Even the country's judicial system, which came to a complete halt, has stepped into an unprecedented phase that might change it forever.
On May 9, the law ministry published the gazette notification of the ordinance titled "Usage of Information and Communication Technology in Court 2020" after the assent of the President and hence paved the way for courts to reopen virtually.
The High Court opened on May 12 and on the first day the single-member bench of Justice Obaidul Hasan passed an order asking authorities to take necessary measures to stop the killing of dolphins in the Halda River. But if we go back to the history, we will see that technology has always been underutilised in the judicial system of Bangladesh, which heavily relied on traditional means of operation in the courtroom such as rummaging for age-old case papers. While the different judiciaries around the world have already gone "paperless", we are still struggling to find a way out of the heap.
Therefore, when the entire world went under lockdown, most judiciaries did not find it difficult to cope, but the shutdowns came as a huge blow for countries like Bangladesh who previously made little use of technology in the judiciary.
Although few initiatives were taken over the years, Bangladesh never took adequate preparations to tackle such a situation.
In Bangladesh subordinate courts remain open on government holidays due to a backlog of cases, and keeping them closed for such a long time is beyond its ordinary course.
The two-month lockdown has affected the lawyers and the litigants waiting for their grievances to be heard. There is a backlog of cases and those in custody are serving longer jail times.
But it is never too late to change the direction of how things are going. Amid the opportune moment of nationwide lockdown, the government brought a message of hope for the judiciary.
On May 7the government passed a new law to introduce video conferencing for court proceedings. The ordinance titled "Usage of Information and Communication Technology in Court 2020" got its final approval from the President and was published as a gazette notification on May 9. The ordinance puts emphasis on "virtual presence".
What is in the law?
Section 2 of the ordinance defines "virtual presence" as participation or presence in court proceedings via audio-video or any other electronic medium. Section 3 states, notwithstanding any inconsistencies with civil/criminal procedure or any other law, any court, subject to a practice direction (special or general) issued under section 5 of this ordinance, ensuring the presence of litigants and their advocates or any other related person, shall be able to conduct trial, inquiry, hear application/appeal submission, evidence, argument and pass order or judgment of any case.
According to section 4 of the ordinance, if a person's "virtual presence" is ensured under section 3, then the court shall consider that the requirement of their physical presence at the court has been satisfied under the civil/criminal procedure or any other law.
What can be considered as a momentous change in the history of the country's judiciary of Bangladesh, court proceedings will now be operated remotely.
Trials will be held digitally and the physical presence of lawyers in the courtrooms shall not be needed as it will be conducted via video conference and other digital means.
It essentially means that lawyers and judges would be able to conduct trials while sitting in their homes. It is noteworthy that many Supreme Court lawyers had been campaigning for this ever since the lockdown began and many see it as a much-needed step into the future.
It would be unfair to say that the thought of introducing technology is completely new. The Supreme Court began maintaining an online cause list for a long time. Last year, the law ministry had taken a project worth Tk 2,690 crore to establish e-judiciary. The government's a2i project had developed innovative software and built online applications. But those were not used due to lack of training. The 2020 ordinance gives effect to the initiatives taken by the a2i, the cabinet division, ICT Division and UNDP.
How to use the portal?
The project called "my court" or "Amaar Adalot" is a website made for the Supreme Court of Bangladesh. Once lawyers or judges visit the portal, they must first register themselves as new users with their valid cell phone number, email address and full name. Once registered, the user will receive a text message with a unique pin code. To log in to the portal one has to provide their phone number along with the pin code.
At present, the portal only consists of two options of application: one for bail and the other for submission of bail bond. If a lawyer wants to apply for bail of his client, he needs to fill up a form, which includes a drop down menu for court type, name of the court and open text field for the case number, lawyer's name, their phone number, name of the bar association etc.
The form also has an option of uploading a vakalatnama, and its approved file formats are gif, png, jpg, jpeg and pdf. The maximum size of the file can be upto 10 megabytes. Once the form is completed, the lawyer can submit it straight or save it for future submission. The portal is very user friendly and requires little or no training to operate. It is expected that more features will be included once the ordinance gets a green signal.
Critical situations are difficult to cope with, but it also teaches us to resort to alternatives. Only in such times we realise our capabilities and options in hand. It took just a few days and a global crisis for the judicial system to reshape itself.
Change is inevitable and it often comes when we least expect it. It may have been late, but this change will probably have a positive impact on the system for good. As we have already stepped into modernization, there is no looking back to what used to be before.