What you have in your hands is essentially a documentation of the working of the judiciary in Odisha in 2021, a year of both challenges and opportunities. During a large part of 2021, the functioning of the Courts in Odisha was restricted on account of the resurgence of the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as I write this, we are at the end of a ‘third wave’.
While the pandemic did slow the Courts down, it did not prevent, even during the periods of total lockdown, the hearing of cases that required urgent orders. It also did not deter the filing of cases. The number of cases filed during 2021 in the District Courts and the High Court were 4,21,703 and 1,28,943 respectively, much higher than the corresponding figures of 2,84,805 and 83,506 respectively for 2020. This was possible on account of the total dedication of the judges and the staff in the High Court, the District Courts, and the lawyers.
2021 was a year of upheaval. The pandemic took away from our midst several of our relatives, close friends, members of the Bar and former colleagues. Still, there was an opportunity that presented itself for using technology to enhance the efficiency of the courts through virtual hearings. The success of these measures encouraged us to bring about several initiatives using ICT. For the first time in Odisha, ‘virtual courts’ were inaugurated in Nayagarh and Angul. In Bhadrak and Malkangiri, these were expanded to function as vulnerable witness courts. Importantly, judges using these court rooms were able to schedule hearings for the virtual courts that enabled witnesses to be examined from remote locations at specified time slots.
Among the other initiatives that were launched in 2021, and about which you will read in some detail in this report, is the introduction of electronic court fees, followed by e-filing, first in the High Court and then in the district courts for which e-facilitation centers were opened. Again, for the first time, the High Court organised hands-on training for the lawyers both in the High Court as well as the District Courts. The training was imparted by judicial officers, who are certified ‘Master Trainers’. Separate training sessions on the use of ICT in courts were organised for the judicial officers of the District Courts. All of these initiatives, and many more which are detailed in this report, were possible because of the hard work and support of the National Informatics Centre and the judiciary’s own technical teams, led by the Central Project Coordinator.
There have been several infrastructural changes brought about in the judiciary in Odisha during 2021. Another first-of-its-kind initiative was the launch on 28th April, 2021 of the digitisation of old records of the district court at four locations – Sambalpur, Balasore, Berhampur and Cuttack. An important addition to the court infrastructure was the state-of-the-art Record Room Digitisation Centre of the High Court of Orissa, inaugurated on 11th September 2021 by Dr. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, Judge of Supreme Court of India and Chairperson of the e-Committee of the Supreme Court. This has led to the serendipitous discovery of records of the High Court and the district courts dating back to the early 19th century which the High Court hopes to develop into a full-fledged judicial history project.
Another major infrastructure change during the year has been the shifting of Odisha Legal Services Authority as well as the Orissa High Court Legal Services Committee to a new building aptly named ‘Aain Seva Bhawan’, inaugurated by the Chief Justice of India, Justice N.V. Ramana, on 25th September, 2021 in the presence of Justice U.U. Lalit, Executive Chairperson NALSA and Justice Vineet Saran, Judge, Supreme Court of India and former Chief Justice of this Court. The second floor of the Aain Sewa Bhavan has a modern Mediation Centre as well as the offices of the Permanent and Continuous Lok Adalat, inaugurated by Justice A.M. Khanwilkar and Justice A.S. Bopanna of the Supreme Court of India on 20th November, 2021. On the third floor of the same building is located a state-of-the-art Arbitration Centre inaugurated on 11th December, 2021 by Justice L. Nageswara Rao, Judge, Supreme Court of India. The Aain Sewa Bhavan thus hosts a bouquet of legal services.
2021 witnessed the inauguration of seven new District court buildings at Kalahandi, Nabarangpur, Malkangiri, Koraput (Jeypore), Sonepur and Bhadrak and in the sub-divisional blocks at Anandpur in Keonjhar, Motu and Mathili in Malkangiri. It was a proud moment when, on 10th September 2021, we had Justice Vineet Saran inaugurate the civil courts complex at Odagaon in Nayagarh, where in one location spread over an area of 5 acres, the courtrooms, the bar hall, the living quarters of the judicial officers and staff have all been able to be accommodated. This was a realisation of the idea put in motion by Justice Saran when he was the Chief Justice of this High Court. The Orissa High Court website contains the videos of the live coverage of all these events.
The year has been marked by efforts to improve the general functioning and efficiency of Courts at all levels. The High Court has been de-cluttered, its entire electric cabling system replaced by a modern busbar trunking system, erected in record time. Several of the administrative sections of the High Court have been renovated and modernised.
As Chief Justice, I have had interactions in virtual mode with almost every judicial officer in the State. In 2021, I was also able to visit 26 of the 30 Districts in person, meet and interact with the judicial officers, the staff and members of the Bar. I have followed this up with letters to each of the judges on 14th April and 10th October 2021, to highlight the major areas in which we need to focus, to improve the working of our courts. On 1st October 2021, my senior colleagues and I held a virtual interaction simultaneously with the office bearers of the Bar Associations in each of the 30 districts. This helped sort out several issues and keep the communication channels with the bar open.
The challenges before the Odisha Judiciary are many. While an observer may comment that we began with a pendency of 1.86 lakh cases and have ended the year with a higher pendency of close to 1.95 lakh cases, this may not account for the fact that with the abolition of the Odisha Administrative Tribunal, over 40,000 cases have been transferred to the High Court in 2021. Further, notwithstanding the restricted working on account of the pandemic, and the judge strength of the High Court coming down to just 13 in July 2021, the number of cases disposed of has grown from 61,335 in 2020 to 1,05,334 in 2021. Efforts are continuing to be made to increase the disposal of ‘old cases’ and improve the overall disposal of cases. The fact that our judge strength has grown to 18 by the end of the year, and to 21 by the time of this report, a large number of staff vacancies have been filled gives us hope that the collective output in 2022 would show a discernible improvement.
It is our constant endeavour to make the judicial institutions in Odisha more accessible, inclusive, transparent and accountable. We opened the High Court to visits by school children. This report includes an abstract of the High Court’s financial accounts. It sets out many of the ‘activities’ concerning the staff of the High Court.
A big thank you is owed to the state and central governments that have extended financial and infrastructural support to the High Court, the police, the local administration in the districts, the print and electronic media and the public at large. Without their constant support, vigil and encouragement, the judiciary in Odisha could not have come this far.
We have a team of dedicated and committed judicial officers and staff working tirelessly to improve the functioning of the courts. We welcome constructive suggestions for improvement and will make every effort to listen to and respond to those suggestions.
The vision for the Odisha judiciary is that of a democratic, modern, dynamic and responsive institution that works to enforce the rule of law and guarantees the protection and enforcement of the rights to the people under our Constitution. The ‘Preamble’ of the Constitution, unveiled in every court in Odisha during 2021, will serve as a constant reminder to each one of us of this vision. We begin 2022 with the hope for a better future for the judiciary in Odisha.