27 April 2021: Langa Dema (pictured above) is from the remote Merak community in Trashigang district in Bhutan’s east. Availing themselves of judicial services is an expensive affair for the people of this remote highland community (3,316 meters above sea level). They must travel all the way to Sakteng Dungkhag Court, a day’s journey away.
At over 4,000 metres above sea level, Sakteng is even higher. While Merak falls under Sakteng Dungkhag, it’s closer to Trashigang distance wise. Thus, many in Merak chose to go to Trashigang District Court than Sakteng Dungkhag Court for judicial services. To make it easier for the people of Merak to access justice services, the Judge of the Sakteng Dungkhag Court divides his time between Trashigang and Sakteng courts.
The travel restrictions to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has made access to justice more challenging, particularly for remote, far flung communities like Merak.
All these challenges are expected to be eased now with the introduction of the Electronic Litigation or eLitigation platform at the Sakteng Dungkhag Court. Launched on 21 April 2021, the eLitigation platform will allow electronic registration of cases, electronic filing of documents, electronic payments, and remote hearings among others. This means the Merak community can avail themselves of court services without having to travel either to Trashigang or Sakteng.
Including Sakteng Dungkhag Court, eLitigation platform is being piloted in seven courts in the country covering 26 benches. The other six courts are the Supreme Court, High Court, Thimphu District Court, Bumthang District Court, Trashigang District and Chukha District Court.
The eLitigation platform is an innovative and transformational initiative aimed at mitigating disruption in the dispensation of justice in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. Bhutan is one of the first countries in the region to initiate eLitigation as a COVID-19 response measure.
The pandemic and measures to contain it has made access to justice more difficult, often resulting in backlog of cases.
The Judiciary and UNDP partnered on the eLitigation initiative as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic in pursuit to the Preparedness and Response Plan to prevent the spread of Covid-19 of the Judiciary. The plan explicitly empowered the Courts to explore and make use of technology to address the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic.
Going forward, the eLitigation platform will be integrated with the existing community services, including the Gewog Community Centres (CCs) making access to judicial services easier for the people in the rural communities. The Community Centres will facilitate and support people in availing e-litigation services as well. The Office of Attorney General and Royal Bhutan Police will also be able to make use of this service.
“During this pandemic, most of the courts already started using social media platforms such as Skype, Zoom, and Google Meet to conduct virtual hearings. The e-litigation system and its rules and regulations will help in developing a uniform and consistent system for virtual hearings. The system will not only ensure efficiency in delivery of services but also save time and resources,” said Justice Tashi Chhozom of the Supreme Court.
UNDP's support to the eLitigation project is linked to its COVID-19 crisis response Offer 2.0, designed to help decision makers look beyond recovery, towards 2030, making choices and managing complexity and uncertainty in four main areas: Governance, Social Protection, Green Economy, and Digital Disruption.
“eLitigation is an example of innovative coping mechanism in the fast changing, volatile and uncertain world. Access to justice services is a challenge in Bhutan due to the country's demanding geographical terrain and sparsely distributed population. The need for bridging the access gap has become more pressing in the wake of COVID-19,” UNDP Resident Representative Azusa Kubota said.
“I would like to commend the Judiciary for embracing technology to dispense justice services. UNDP is humbled to be a partner in this endeavor and look forward to taking this transformational initiative forward.”
UNDP supported the Judiciary in the review of the eLitigation rules and regulations, procurement of virtual conference equipment, development of the eLitigation web-based portal, training of court users and litigants, community centers and local government in the pilot Dzongkhags.