Dr. Ikramul Haq
In early columns, the need for merging existing tax tribunals into National Tax Tribunal or National Tax Court was discussed in detail for speedy disposal of cases. We must also move towards e-Tribunals and e-Courts using modern technology. This initiative has become indispensable after outbreak of Covid-19 endemic. Establishment of E-Tax Court can be used as pilot and model project to unclog the entire judicial system and overcome paucity of judges in lower courts and members of various tribunals working under the Federal Ministry of Law & Justice and provincial law ministries. For meeting the challenge of huge backlog and increasing load of new cases, the setting up of E-Courts/E-Benches has proved successful in many countries to help clear the pendency of cases and speedy disposal of new cases. If this pilot project succeeds, it can be extended to all courts/tribunals. The Supreme Court has already provided video-link facility to litigants. This can also be provided in tax tribunals for which willingness on the part of all stakeholders to reform and modernise tax appellate system exists.
The Chairman Federal Board of Revenue, while testifying before the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), revealed that more than “Rs.1.856 trillion revenue has been stuck for years due to litigation in various courts”. The analysis of the issues raised by him and possible solutions were suggested in Unclogging tax appellate system, Daily Times, October 18, 2020.
The establishment of e-Courts have revolutionised the process of dispensation of justice in many countries. Lahore High Court started the process as early as in April, 1991 when a Computer Cell was inaugurated—this was the first ever use of computer technology in any judicial department in Pakistan. Since then progress has been made, though slowly, to use IT tools for swift disposal of cases and curtailing the back-log. However, the technology is restricted to displaying cause lists on websites—it can be used to accelerate case disposals through e-Courts and e-Benches.
The ex-Chief Justice of Pakistan, Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa, while inaugurating the ceremony of ‘Mobile App, 1818 Supreme Court Call Center, on November 20, 2019, informed all the stakeholders that video-link facility would be provided in e-Court system under which its registries in the provinces would be connected through the latest technology to its principal seat in the federal capital five courts with effect from November 27, 2019, as well as establishment of Research Centre in Islamabad.
It is worthwhile to mention that Chief Justice (Retd) Asif Saeed Khan Khosa during his tenure of 337 days (about 235 working days) achieved extraordinary success in disposal of cases. During his tenure, the judiciary decided 73,000 trials besides disposing of a large number of criminal cases, pending since 1994. In majority of these criminal cases, appeals were filed by the poor people. On his retirement on December 21, 2019, in 23 districts of the country, there was not a single case of narcotics that remained pending. In 20 districts, there was no family matter case pending and in 29 districts, there was not a single case of rent appeal pending as well. The Supreme Court also took steps for police reforms and post of SP Complaint cell was created in each district that helped in reducing 30% burden of cases on district courts and 15% on high courts. During his 235 working days, the Supreme Court decided 15,555 cases despite the fact that many larger benches of the apex court remained busy with important cases, consuming a lot of time.
The latest data available on the website of Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan (L&JCP), show huge pendency of 2,041,229 cases during the period 1-15th June, 2020 in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Federal Shariat Court, High Courts and District Judiciary. In the Supreme Court alone the pendency was of 45,125 cases. Earlier, L&JCP, in 2018, for the period 1- 30th September, showed total pending cases at 1,810,745, while Supreme Court had a pendency of 40,243. Itconfirms that pendency has been increasing as every month more cases are filed than disposed—choking the justice delivery system. Our courts are still following the outdated procedures and methods whereas many countries have adopted e-system for filing of cases and their quick disposal through alternate dispute resolution and/or fast-tracks follow up using the e-courts at all levels.
In our tax tribunals, thousands of cases are pending for years. There is shortage of members and proper facilities. A beginning can be made from tax appellate apparatus to introduce e-Benches. It can reduce the pendency of tax appeals and save substantial amount of taxpayers’ money needed for setting up physical offices at different places. The establishment of e-Benches can definitely help in delivering justice at the litigants’ doorstep. If a bench is not functioning in a particular place, say in Multan, in case of an emergency for stay of recovery, the taxpayer is compelled to file an application in Lahore and bear the cost of travelling etc. For many in remote areas, situated far away from the nearest available Tribunal bench, it is both costly and time consuming. The working of e-Bench would help taxpayers, tax consultants and tax administration. For example, appeals at Faisalabad, Multan, Sialkot and Gujranwala can be heard at e-Bench at Lahore. The consultants and departmental representatives at these places at the nearest tax office can present their cases through video-link facility as made available by Supreme Court. The members sitting at Lahore through video-link can hear the case and pronounce their judgment. Such e-Benches can be extended to all cities of Pakistan where tax offices exist, but Tribunal has no establishment.
Setting up e-Benches of Tax Tribunal will not require substantial spending as existing facilities in Customs Houses, Large Taxpayers Units (LTUs) and Regional Tax Offices (RTOs) can be utilised. This would enable consultants to represent the matter from their own city. Apart from facilitating taxpayers and tax consultants, this will reduce the pendency of cases, save substantial capital and recurring expenditure of the government which can be used for improving judicial system. Above all, there will be complete transparency. Recording of the proceedings would eliminate any chance of malpractice or allegation of miscarriage of justice.
In many countries, there is even more exciting initiative, called e-Mobile Court that is a specially designed vehicle having facility of e-Library, with all modern technology and after the hearing, judgments are delivered expeditiously. This brings transparency and eliminates delay in the justice delivery system. If the concept of e-Mobile Court is introduced, justice will be available at the doorstep of every citizen in Pakistan.
In the wake of Covid-19 endemic, China introduced a system of digital justice with the help of artificial intelligence (AI) judges. According to a Press report, published in TECHGIG on December 19, 2019:
“China has been at the forefront of implementing automation technologies to streamline services, and encouraging digitisation in the legal system to streamline case handling within its court system. In a recently published policy paper, China’s Supreme People’s Court (SPC) said that cyberspace and technologies like blockchain have been of great help to streamline cyberspace and technologies. The social media platform WeChat is used to handle legal cases. WeChat has already handled more than 3 million legal cases. The government launched the mobile court in March this year”.
Mimi Zou in her blog at Faculty of Law (University of Oxford), Virtual Justice in the Time of Covid-19,has noted:
“In recent years, Chinese courts have seen rapid developments in online dispute resolution platforms, specialized Internet courts, and the wide use of AI tools across case management and adjudication processes in civil and criminal proceedings. Other novel technologies such as distributed ledgers, blockchain and smart contracts solutions are currently being developed and rolled out in several local and specialised courts.
An important aspect of these developments is making trial data resources online. As of February 2020, there were over 81.5 million judgments and other judicial documents on the SPC’s China Judgments Online, representing the world’s largest digital repository of judicial information. This is made possible by the SPC’s centralised big data management and service platform, which connects every court in China (which includes around 3,520 courts, 9,277 tribunals and 39 maritime courts)”.
Through technological innovations and emphasis on alternate dispute resolution (ADR) system, litigants in Pakistan can get orders/settlement of disputes at much lesser cost and expeditiously. Such steps can bring a revolution in our justice delivery system, provided the federal and provincial governments, High Courts and Supreme Court make it a top priority agenda of judicial reforms.
There is an urgent need to establish e-Tribunals, e-Courts, e-Benches and e-Mobile Courts. It is time that Chief Justice of Supreme Court, Chief Justices of High Courts, Heads of all Tribunals, the Executive, all political parties, various bodies of lawyers and civil society join hands for reforming our existing outdated and inefficient judicial system.
The writer, Advocate Supreme Court, is Adjunct Professors at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS).