In Conversation with Justice (Retd.) GC Bharuka, the man behind the computerisation of Indian courts (Part 1)

He has more than a few interesting stories, you have to give him that. With a professional life that began as a mathematics teacher, GC Bharuka went on to become one of the leading commercial lawyers in the Patna High Court. Elevated to the Bench in 1990, he was also the Acting Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court. He remained on the Bench for thirteen years.

But it was neither his successful practice nor his judicial career that was the focal point of the interview, one that lasted the better part of three hours. No, this was not one of the “usual” interviews.

The reason being that for nearly three decades, Justice Bharuka has embarked on one of the most remarkable (but unfinished) experiments in the Indian judiciary – the automation and computerisation of Indian courts.

The year is 1968, and the young mathematics M.Sc. Bharuka had recently cleared the bar examination. With a law degree from Chhota Nagpur Law College, Bharuka joined the chambers of the Late Harilal Agarwal.

It was here that the young Bharuka learnt that law was his calling.

“The day I joined, I picked up his files and started working on them. I would study, and research, and many a time I would be able to give some new point in a case. On the day I passed the bar council examination, my senior said that if I was to join the High Court practice, I will be earning two hundred rupees a month. Without a second thought, I agreed.”

It was a demanding life, and not just in terms of intellectual challenges.

“In those days, we would carry the bags of our seniors. All the files would be in a large bags, and all the courtrooms used to be on the first floor of the Patna High Court.

There was no lift, so at times, I would lift the bag and rush to the first floor.” (laughs)

In 1973, when Sri Agarwal was elevated, Bharuka started his independent practice. Building and honing his skills in corporate, commercial and tax litigations, in February 1984, he was designated as Senior Advocate by the Patna High Court. He was forty-three years old. In that very year, he was also offered the chance to join the Bench.

“I had my own reservations. I had four children, they were all young. At that time, the judge’s salary was too low. But the Chief Justice insisted. I told him about my reservations, and I think he was a bit annoyed also (laughs). He told me I had twenty-four hours’ time to communicate my final decision.

The next evening, I wrote on a chit of paper that I was agreeable to the proposal and handed it over to his secretary.”

He may have given his consent, but judgeship would elude him for some time. Twenty-three months passed by, and his elevation did not come through. Looking back, Bharuka says that this was due to the meddling of the then State Law Minister. In 1986, he decided to withdraw his consent. It was not an easy decision.

“I drowned myself in work, became one of the top lawyers of the High Court. In 1990, Justice SS Sohni from Madhya Pradesh came to the Patna High Court as Chief Justice. After 3-4 months, he came to know that this is what had happened.”

One day, he called me in his chamber. He said that he wanted me to become a judge. He said he knew everything.”

This time around though, Bharuka did not agree. In fact, he had made up his mind to become an Additional Advocate General; the then Chief Minister Lalu Prasad Yadav had even agreed to this. At home, he was waiting for the morning paper to carry news of his appointment. There was no such mention; instead he was asked to visit the Advocate General.

“The Advocate General said that last evening, there was a wireless message that mine and three other names (including Aftab Alam) were cleared for elevation. Now I could not say no. And the minute the Chief Minister learned about this, he removed my name from AAG. All this happened in fifteen days!”

It was as a judge of the Patna High Court that his journey really began. For this is where things become very, very interesting.

“The Patna High Court administration was in a mess, particularly the cause-list. There would be 1,500-2,000 matters listed before each judge, files were not to be found, etc. I was one of the junior judges, but within seven days I proposed to the Chief Justice that the only remedy was to go for computerisation.

The manual system of making causelists as it was at that time, resulted in its finalization in the late morning hours. And then it would go for printing, which means it would come to the lawyers only at twelve noon! I wanted to make tomorrow’s causelist available at seven in the evening of the previous day.”

This was a time when the Supreme Court of India, the apex court of the land, had one computer, and that too for tentative caveat matching.

“I did not even know this. But I knew then that if you wanted effective management, computerisation was the only answer. Since the Chief and I would sit together, on my insistence he said, ‘Alright you can go ahead but we did not have any funds for this’.

The first thing I did was to sell my personal air conditioned ambassador car for sixty thousand rupees. Then I bought two machines: an HCL computer, and a dot-matrix printer.”

He may have got the hardware but that was only the first step. The High Court judge now had to learn about the software involved. For two hours every morning, Justice Bharuka would attend a class on computer technology. As he slowly became comfortable with the technology of that time, he realised that he would now need more money, specialised hardware, and skilled developers. A friend of his, an IAS officer who was posted in the Personnel Department, stepped in. He knew the regional head of the National Informatics Centre.

“The NIC State head, SP Singh, visited me. A very humble man. I told him that this is what I want to do, I wanted to automate the court judicial processes. The primary focus was on causelist management.”

Singh agreed to loan the hardware, and the Chief Justice managed to secure him a tiny chamber where the two NIC developers would sit and punch in the code.

“I would be free from the judicial work by 6 pm, and would come to this tiny chamber by then. I would then sit with the two programmers till two in the morning. We started work in 1990. In 1991, the causelist of the High Court was completely automated!”

I would then sit with the two programmers till two in the morning. I would sit on a chaprasi’s stool since there was no space for another chair.

Nearly three decades on, it remains one of the most significant developments in the history of Indian courts. And one which involved a critical analysis of the ways in which the courts worked.

“Let us start with the point where the case file is accepted in court system. It then goes to the Branch, where the details such as name, content of the parties and lawyers are fed into the system. After that, a date would be fed into the computer. After the dates for all the cases were fed into the system, then if you click on any date, you would get that day’s causelist.

We would also add a code number for each judge, so you could then pull out the causelist for each individual judge for any given day. Simple logic.

We also made it subject wise, i.e., cases of this subject matter would go before this judge on this day. This was 1991. And this system is still working.

There used to be a lot of corruption in the listing department, “bench hunting” as it is called. So the causelist clerks there would often earn thousands a month to get some matters listed before specific courts. With automation, that entire office was dismantled.”

Soon enough, Justice Bharuka had the support of the judicial machinery. No longer was the sanctioning of funds a difficult task. When the time came to purchase new hardware, he approached the then Acting Chief Justice, Justice Ahmed.

“He said, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘I need four lakh rupees from the government’. I drafted a letter to the government, and he signed it. I showed it to the Advocate General, who went with the letter to CM Lalu Prasad. The next day, he got a letter sanctioning four lakh rupees for computerisation of the Patna High Court!”

With the said money, the High Court purchased a server, printers, and few desktops. A separate room was allocated for computerisation, with policemen posted to ensure only authorised access. Justice Bharuka shifted his chambers right next to this room.

“I wanted direct supervision. People were very scared of me.” (laughs)

Eventually, these developments reached the doors of the Supreme Court, where Justice MN Venkatachaliah was the Chief Justice of India. Justice Bharuka was asked to visit the Apex Court.

“So I went [to the Supreme Court]. I was allotted a working space. Justice Venkatachaliah wanted me to examine the functioning of the Registry and advise him on how to automate it. I took seven days, made a complete study of the filing system.

I told CJI Venkatachaliah that technology has improved to the extent that if you pass an order in the court in the morning for issue of notice, you will be able to see the service report at 2 o’ clock on the same day. He could not believe it!”

Soon thereafter, the Supreme Court started the process of automation. In 1994, CJI Venkatachailah asked Justice Bharuka whether he would go to Karnataka, a request, he agreed to. With one rider.

“But there were also the transfers that took place during the “cleansing” of the High Courts, and I asked him that my name should not come in those transfers. He agreed. A month after the “cleansing” transfers, I was transferred to the Karnataka High Court.”

In June of 1994, he was transferred to the Karnataka High Court.

“I was an outsider, so there was some resistance. It was quite foreign for me; a different language, different people. I remember it was so hard to find samosas back then.” (laughs)

“Revenue matters, where the documents used to be in Kannada, were given to me. That was quite difficult. I asked for books on how to learn the language, and would study every day for hours in the morning. I learnt reading and writing Kannada within two months.”

Two years later, he was put in charge of the computerisation of the entire Karnataka judiciary.

“The Karnataka High Court was the first High Court with a website where you could access the causelist in the previous evening. With complete automation, all information about certified copies would be freely available on the website. Before that, there was so much corruption in receiving certified copies.

With automation, one could file an application for a certified copy. If a judgment/order has been signed, then the print outs of these would be taken out at 2 pm and 4 pm. Then they would be taken to a scanning centre, and scanned. If there was an application seeking certified copy of the order in a particular matter, then a high speed printer would print out copies of the order/judgment.

The printed copy would then be signed and certified to be a true copy then and there. This certified copy would then go to the counter, and the lawyer, through the website, would know that order is available.

This has been going in the Karnataka High Court since 1998 but has not been followed anywhere else, not even in the Supreme Court.”

But this was not all.

Once he was done with the Karnataka High Court, he decided to move onto the lower courts. He arranged for the funds too – about Rs. 1,600 crore to computerize 600 subordinate courts.

Once again, the crucial part of the development was domain knowledge. You may have the best developers, and the latest hardware, but both can be redundant without an expert on domain.

“So I used to prepare the design of the front end, the back end, and tell them that I needed them to code the logic.

In the afternoon, they would come back with the code, and I would correct and give them further codes. Then, after court hours, they would show me their work. Step by step, we went further.”

This was a time when there was absolutely no such customised software for judicial processes in the country. Everything was being done for the first time.

Gone is the judge; here is a technological expert giving a 101 on coding, user interface, and database management.

“The software that we made was tested in the 100 courts in the city civil courts. The bugs that would come up, would be rectified on a daily basis. Preparation of Causelist became automated, case status began to become available on a click.

Once I went to address a meeting of the City Civil Court Bar Association, and a lady lawyer came up to me and said, “Sir, in my case issues were to be framed, yet we have only seen adjournments for the past two years. Our clients are sick of this.”

I said, “Alright, your problem will be solved tomorrow.

I called the IT boys, and asked them to find out the details of the list of cases where framing of issues were pending. They found 2,600 such cases. In 15 minutes, I had a court-wise list of cases where issues had not been framed for long.

I gave this list to the District Judge, and told him to hand over this list to his judges. In ten days, the issues had to be framed in each of these cases. I also took the list to the High Court, and asked the Registrar General to issue notices to all the judges in the list with a request that they must frame the issues before the summer vacation starts, otherwise their leaves would be cancelled. Within ten days, issues were framed in all the cases.

This is court and case management with the effective use of technology. This was in the year 2001.”

In the year 2003, June 15, Justice Bharuka retired. Also, the same year, just before his retirement, he was conferred a Ph.D. by the NLSIU in Bangalore on the theme “Rejuvenating Judicial System through E-governance and Attitudinal Change”.

One and half years later, he would begin another chapter, one with a national reach.