Working closely with GovTech to make court judgments accessible online 

Thinley Namgay  

Recently, Kuensel’s legal opinion contributor had to issue a corrigendum when writing an article on Phajo Nidup’s case. The error occurred, according to the writer, as the judgement copy was not available in public domain and he based his option on media reports.  

This, however, he said could have been avoided if the judiciary made all judgments available and accessible to the public. There is a section in the  Civil and Criminal Procedure Code (CCPC) (Amendment) Act 2011, which states that the judgment of the Court shall be made accessible in the public domain, including libraries.

More than a decade after the amendment, the judiciary is still not able to fulfil its mandate, although officials said they are working towards doing that. 

Why public?

According to lawyers, judgments are the final decisions of the court proceedings of a dispute or controversy where the rights, obligations, and remedies are determined. People want to know how the case is decided and on what basis. 

“Making judgments available to the public is expected to enhance transparency in the judiciary, gain public trust and confidence, and facilitate legal research for aspiring legal professionals and law students,” Lawyer Sonam Tshering said.   

Those aware of the CCPC and laws said that the judiciary, as an important institution in the country should implement its own law.  “Article 21(1) of the Constitution envisions the judiciary to safeguard, uphold, and administer justice fairly and independently without fear, favour, or undue delay in accordance with the Rule of Law to build public confidence. This is manifested in the form of judgments and will clear suspicions in the people’s minds,” said one of the lawyers.  

In many countries, judgements from district courts to the Supreme Court are made public. In India, the most commonly used reports are the All-India Report (AIR), which contains all judgments.  

In the US, the most common are Lexis Nexis and Westlaw. In Canada, they use HeinOnline. These global legal databases also contain judgments from many other jurisdictions like African countries. 

Lawyers said that some of the most closed or corrupt countries also make judgments available to the public. “This acts as a check and balance to judges,” said one. 

A private lawyer demands the judiciary upload judgments online on their website. Since all judgments are drafted electronically,  a lawyer said that it is not difficult to publish judgments on the judiciary website.  

However, people suggest that it is logical for the judiciary to restrict access to certain judgments which are sensitive to national security, international relations, trade secrets, or family matters.

A private  lawyer  added making judgments available will bring uniformity in the law application and form proper arguments in cases of similar nature. “It is very important for lawyers to make proper citations and seek justice. Unfortunately, we are not able to do this as we have no access to the judgments in general,” she added. 

Journalists also said that not getting copies of judgment hampered coverage, often risking making mistakes.  Some said they rely on the litigants for the verdict to report. Today, reporters request the media unit via email, over the phone, or in person for copies of judgments. The process, they said is time consuming, hampering reportage.

Although Section 96 (A) of the CCPC (Amendment) Act 2011 was amended by the parliament, there is a question of who is responsible for making the judiciary follow the provisions of this law. Kuensel didn’t  receive a response to its written question from the  National Assembly Secretariat.  

The judiciary responds

The judiciary has been planning to leverage technology and recognises the mandate to make judgments publicly accessible, according to Leki Tshering, the focal person of the judiciary’s Media and Communication Unit. 

The plan could not be executed because it requires a lot of resources. “However, the work to make judgments available online is still ongoing,” he said. 

The judiciary’s efforts include the launch of the Case Information System (CIS) and the Case Management System (CMS), which provide a centralised platform for case records and data.  

The focal person said that the digitisation of judicial services must align with the government’s plans and policies. “As GovTech is the lead agency spearheading technological advancements across the sectors or agencies, the judiciary is working closely with it to make court judgements accessible online,” he said. “We anticipate positive outcomes from this collaboration.” 

He added that requests from the media and public have always been welcome and facilitated by the judiciary, subject to reasonable restrictions depending on the sensitivity of cases. 

Meanwhile, the judiciary is working closely with institutions such as the JSW School of Law and the Office of the Attorney General (OAG).

The judiciary anticipates the plans from the JSW School of Law to upload  judgements online. “Such cooperation will benefit legal scholars and contribute to the judiciary through research and critical analysis,” Leki Tshering said. 

The way forward

The JSW School of Law is exploring raising funds to set up Bhutan’s first AI-based legal database. One of its objectives is to make court judgements available to the public. The law school intends to upload all judgements in Dzongkha and English for public benefit and academic research.  

The database, according to Sonam Tshering, Assistant Dean, JSW Research Centre, will contain all laws in the country, parliamentary proceedings, and the law school’s publications. “For example, the key word murder will lead one to all relevant laws related to murder, definitions, and articles, among others,” he said. 

The OAG intends to upload all judgements on cases it prosecutes on its website starting from the 13th plan. 

An official from the Anti-Corruption Commission said, “With the OAG’s initiative to upload court judgements on its website, ACC will automatically follow suit.”