The cabinet on Thursday approved a draft ordinance on the use of information technology by courts for holding trials, hearings and taking digital evidence using technology and virtual appearances of parties and lawyers in order to reduce the backlog of cases.
The weekly cabinet meeting, chaired by prime minister Sheikh Hasina at her official residence Ganabhaban, approved the proposed ordinance as the Jatiya Sangsad was not in session.
The draft was placed in the cabinet meeting in the wake of Supreme Court’s recent recommendation to the government for enabling the courts to hold proceedings during the long public holiday because of the COVID 19 outbreak.
Law minister Anisul Huq told New Age: ‘All courts will hold hearing of bail and other urgent matters after the law ministry will notify the ordinance in official gazette next week.’
He said that the Evidence Act would also be amended soon to facilitate the application of the ordinance after its promulgation.
The minister went on that the Supreme Court would issue directives to the courts on how to deal with the cases by using technology.
Cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam in a video press briefing on Thursday told reporters that justice-seekers were deprived of justice with the backlog of cases rising because of the long coronavirus vacation of the courts.
‘The Information and Technology Usage by Court Ordinance 2020 was drafted for holding trials through video conferencing and other digital methods,’ the cabinet secretary said.
The proposed ordinance said: ‘Notwithstanding anything contained in any law, the courts are empowered to conduct trial, inquiry, hearing and record evidence through audio, video or any other electronic systems in presence of lawyers or parties concerned and these parties would be deemed to be physically presence before the court.’
It also said that the Supreme Court would issue a ‘Practice directory’ on the use of the virtual courts.
Supreme Court officials said on Thursday that it sent to the law ministry a draft ordinance on Sunday.
Hearings through video conferencing cannot be possible unless the necessary digital infrastructure was set up, said officials.
On April 25, an online full court meeting of the Supreme Court judges decided to request the president to promulgate an ordinance making provisions for online operation of the courts like others countries such as India, UK and USA.
The meeting also decided not to operate regular courts during the general holiday now in effect to check the coronavirus spread.
The meeting further decided to form a committee to amend the rules for both the Appellate Division and the High Court Division making provisions for online court operation.
Earlier, the Supreme Court Bar Association requested Chief Justice Syed Mahmud Hossain to operate courts across the country on limited scales through special arrangements to protect rights of the citizens and other litigants.
The Supreme Court’s proposal to introduce e-judiciary had remained stalled since 2017 after the law ministry opposed the government-sponsored project stating that the ministry would have no control over it.
As courts across Bangladesh remain closed because of the ongoing coronavirus situation, lawyers and court officials observed that had the digitisation of the judiciary been implemented it would have created an opportunity now to carry on with court proceedings online during the lockdown.
As of April 2019, over 30 lakh cases were pending with the lower courts and about five lakh with the Supreme Court, according to Supreme Court spokesman Mohammad Saifur Rahman.
Lawyers said that the jails were over-crowded as inmates were unable to seek bail while the police continued to make arrests as the courts have been closed since March 25 due to the coronavirus holiday.
As of May 5, there were 88,771 inmates — 70,934 under-trial and 15, 851 convicted — against the capacity of 41,314 in the country’s 68 jails, according to the Directorate of Prisons.
Thursday’s cabinet also approved the drafts of the Value Added Tax and Supplementary Duty (Amendment) Bill, 2020 and the Income-tax (Amendment) Ordinance, 2020.
Once promulgated, the Income-tax (Amendment) Ordinance will allow taxpayers to pay their taxes without any penalty and interest as they have failed to pay taxes in due time as per the existing law for the reason that all the official activities of the income tax department have remained suspended since March 26 last over the coronavirus pandemic, said the cabinet secretary.
He said that a section, 184G, would be added to the existing Income Tax Ordinance 1984 to give them exemption from the legal responsibilities on the grounds of the epidemic, pandemic, war and any other situations like acts of God.
The draft of the Value Added Tax and Supplementary Duty (Amendment) Bill has incorporated a sub-section (3) after section 64 (2) of the existing law of 2012 to allow the Board of Revenue to extend the time-limit for submission of the VAT returns without penalty and interest in case of any natural disaster, pandemic and emergency situation.
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