COVID-19 has drastically changed our world. Everything, apart from essential services, has come to a standstill. The world, as it stands right now, is paused in time. The same can be said about the legal fraternity. Courts in India have been thrown into disarray at the prospect of keeping the legal system running in these trying times.
Since the declaration of the 21-day national lockdown on 24th March 2020, the Supreme Court has been hearing all urgent matters by way of video conferencing. On Friday, 3rd April 2020, the head of the E-Committee of the Supreme Court, His Lordship Hon’ble Mr. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud conducted a meeting with Judges representing all High Courts to discuss and review the measures taken up by each High Court to handle the case load in their respective jurisdictions.
In these times of despair, the Supreme Court on 6th April 2020, has passed various directions in a suo moto case with respect to guidelines for the functioning of courts via video conferencing during the COVID-19 lockdown. A bench comprising of Hon’ble Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, His Lordship Hon’ble Mr. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and His Lordship Hon’ble Mr. L Nageswara Rao directed NIC officials to assist High Courts with the set up of infrastructure to handle hearings via video conferencing.
The bench observed that, “Access to justice is fundamental to preserve the Rule of Law in the democracy envisioned by the Constitution of India. The challenges occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19 have to be addressed while preserving the constitutional commitment to ensuring the delivery of and access to justice to those who seek it. It is necessary to ensure compliance with social distancing guidelines issued from time to time by various health authorities, Government of India and States. Court hearings in congregation must necessarily become an exception during this period.“
In exercise of the powers conferred on the Supreme Court of India by Article 142 of the Constitution of India to make such order as are necessary for doing complete justice, the Supreme Court has directed that:
1. All measures that have been and shall be taken by the Supreme Court and by the High Courts, to reduce the need of physical presence of all stakeholders within court premises and to secure the functioning of courts in consonance with social distancing guidelines and best public health practices shall be deemed to be lawful.
2. The Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorised to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technology.
3. Consistent with the peculiarities of the judicial system in every state and the dynamically developing public health situation, every High Court is authorised to determine the modalities which are suitable to the temporary transition to the use of video conferencing technologies.
4. The concerned court shall maintain a helpline to ensure that any complaint in regard to the quality or audibility of feed shall be communicated during the proceeding or immediately after its conclusion failing which no grievance in regard to it shall be entertained thereafter.
5. The District Courts in each State shall adopt the mode of video conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court.
6. The Courts shall duly notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants who do not have the means or access to video conferencing facilities. If necessary, in appropriate cases courts may appoint an amicus-curiae and make video conferencing facilities available to such an advocate.
7. Until appropriate rules are framed by the High Court, video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage. In no case shall evidence be recorded without the mutual consent of both parties by video conferencing. If it is necessary to record evidence in a court room the presiding officer shall ensure that appropriate distance is maintained between any two individuals in the Court.
8. The presiding officer shall have the power to restrict entry of persons into the court room or the points from which the arguments are addressed by the advocates. No presiding officer shall prevent the entry of a party to a case unless such party is suffering from any infectious illness. However, where the number of litigants is too much the presiding officer shall have the power to restrict the numbers. The presiding officer shall in his discretion adjourn the proceedings where it is not possible to restrict the number.
The dedication of the Supreme Court to protect the Rule of Law in these confusing times is nothing less than admirable. The idea that justice shall prevail and the members of society pleading for justice shall be heard, is definitely a silver lining.
The idea and infrastructure to carry out this idea safeguards the legal framework in India from breakdowns in similar situations in the future assuring that no person approaching the Court for justice will go unheard even in situations that threaten the very foundation of our society.
The proactive attitude of the Supreme Court towards the application of technology in the times of COVID- 19 is an essential step. It provides the legal fraternity and the public, at large, with some sense of security. However, this calls for a huge change in the mindset of the Bar and the Bench. In these times, when the world is moving slowly, we are thinking of taking a large jump. There will be difficulties of bandwidth, a uniformity required in protocol for digitization and security concerns may arise as the companies providing digital software solutions may not be government companies.
Notwithstanding the difficulties, our judiciary has already started taking this leap. In addition to the apex court, Hon’ble High Court of Bombay and Kerala High Court have taken that first step towards online hearings. This readiness to move towards technology hints at a bright future for the legal fraternity where online trials and other technological advancements might become the norm of the near future.
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