The Supreme Court (SC) has asked registrar generals of all high courts (HCs) to speed up the digitisation of records with promptitude at all district courts, preferably within the time prescribed for filing an appeal.
In an order, the bench of justice Krishna Murari and justice Sanjay Karol says, "It cannot be doubted that had there been properly preserved records of the trial court, the issue in the present appeal as to whether the HC could uphold a conviction having not perused the complete trial court record, would not have arisen. Judicial notice can be taken of the fact that in accordance with the standard operating procedure (SOP) issued, private entities providing specialised service have been contracted, and therefore considering the importance and essentiality of such record, a robust system of responsibility and accountability must be developed and fostered in order to ensure the proper protection and regular updation of all records facilitating the smooth functioning of the judicial process."
Once the system of digitisation and the system of authentication is in place, the district judge should ensure that the digitised records are verified as expeditiously as possible, the apex court says.
The bench also observed that, currently, technology has become increasingly enmeshed with the systems of dispute resolution and adjudication, with the trends pointing leading to all the more interplay, both supplementary and complimentary, between technology and law.
The SC had asked to maintain a continuous update record of the digitised register of records and the district courts should send periodic reports to the concerned HCs for suitable directions.
Earlier in September 2021, the e-committee of the SC issued an SOP for step-by-step implementation of the digitisation process for digital preservation. Primarily, these 18 steps require all high courts to establish judicial digital repositories (JDR) and the standardised system. A digitisation cell at each of the HC is to be established to monitor the progress on a daily basis. The cell would manage contracts with vendors for specialised services. Also, an online data tracking system to keep track of the data transferred to the HC and facilitate the receipts for each set of transferred records to the district courts. District courts must have backups of all data transferred to the high court monthly while maintaining an independent record.
According to the apex court, the language of Section 385 of the code of criminal procedure (CrPC) shows that the court sitting in appeal governed thereby is required to call for the records of the case from the concerned court below. This is an obligation, power coupled with a duty, and only after the perusal of such records would an appeal be decided, it added.
While allowing an appeal, the bench set aside the order and conviction passed by a special judge under the Prevention of Corruption Act at Lucknow. It also directed to refund the fine of Rs25,000 to the accused.
The case is related to JK Rode, assistant commercial manager of Northern Railway at Lucknow, who was caught red-handed receiving a bribe to dispose a charge-sheet from Jai Prakash Narayan Upadhyay, a chief ticket inspector. He was sentenced to rigorous imprisonment of one year, and a fine of Rs500 was imposed on Mr Rode by the trial court.
The matter reached the HC. However, a 4 March 2016 order from the HC noted that, despite repeated summoning of trial records, no reply was received from the trial court. The record further reveals that "the entire record has been lost and is not traceable" and the documents sent as 'reconstructed documents' do not constitute the relevant trial court record.
However, on 23 November 2022, the HC upheld the conviction of Mr Rode, despite having noted on an earlier occasion that the reconstruction of records was not in accordance with rules and the admission of nonavailability of material on record. The sentence, however, was reduced to the time already undergone by Mr Rode. The fine was also increased to Rs25,000.
Mr Rode then filed an appeal before the SC. The bench of justice Murari and justice Karol says, "The court below, in our considered view, by taking a mutually contradictory view, proceeded to decide the appeal on merits sentencing the accused, forgetting that the challenge was also for conviction. And yet did not deal with the merits of the appeal, laying specific challenge to the judgment of conviction. The whole approach is illegal and erroneous. Firstly, it is observed that the record was missing, and then it casts the onus to produce the same on Mr Rode."
"The job of the court of appeal is not to depend on the lower court's judgment to uphold the conviction but, based on the record available before it duly called from the trial court and the arguments advanced before it, to come to a conclusion," it added.