VIRTUAL COURT HEARINGS: THE NEW NORMAL?

“The possibilities and advantages of virtual hearings have come to light because the Supreme Court has decided to carry out judicial work by it!”

-Shailesh Gandhi, Former Central Information Commissioner.

The COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted all the systems of the planet. The Judiciary has additionally fallen prey. The measures like social distancing and lockdown have led to the complete shutdown of Courts and Administrative Tribunals. Courts have reduced trials and are solely absorbing urgent matters. Judges, lawyers, and clients are all trying to maintain stability between hearing and disposing of their cases.

In such a situation, technology is aiding people all over the world. Due to the difficulties faced during the pandemic, legal personnel has resorted to Virtual Courts. Virtual Courts, as the name suggests, are Courts that conduct day-to-day hearings through online portals. Applications like Zoom, Google Meet, WebEx, etc., are used to conduct meetings, conferences, mediations, arbitrations, and hearings of trials from the vicinity of one’s home or office.

On the 6thof April 2020, the Supreme Court, and on the 7thof April 2020, the Telangana High Court passed directions on the conduct of hearings via video conferencing due to lockdown. This calls for a reasonable debate to be held on the shift of the Judiciary from an offline mode to an online mode.

ANALYSING THE PROS AND CONS OF VIRTUAL COURT HEARINGS

While the ongoing pandemic, on the one hand, has caused catastrophes and depression in various sectors of society and the economy, on the other hand, it has provided several opportunities for technological experimentation. Although many have welcomed this up-gradation of the judicial system, there are certain criticisms too. Let us discuss some of the pros and cons of virtual Court hearings.

PROS

The key advantages of virtual Court hearings are as follows:

  1. Cost Efficiency:

Online Hearing of Matters has cut down the cost of proceedings. It has eliminated the expenses associated with traveling, infrastructure, staff, security, etc.

A report on the functioning of virtual Courts highlighted that digital justice is inexpensive and quick. It solves the location and economic hurdles.

  1. Time Saviour:

Virtual hearings have also proved to be very time-efficient. There is no need for Judges, lawyers, or clients to travel. The matter can be attended from home/office. Open Courts are often packed with people, thereby always causing a worry about parking and security. Online hearings have put everyone at ease. Matters are scheduled exactly on time, so there is little to no waiting for other cases to finish. If the Judge wants to postpone a hearing, he can do so without causing any inconvenience to the parties.

The 2020 report(supra) of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Law and Justice stated that virtual hearings have helped in delivering speedy outcomes with fewer resources.

  1. Speedy Justice:

Virtual hearings have led to disciplined time management. Lawyers are expected to present concise, focused, and point-to-point arguments. This makes the system operate faster, ensuring speedy justice.

India has a huge bag filled with pending cases. However, as per the Madurai bench of Madras High Court, out of the 5,020 cases filed in July 2020 alone, 4,832 cases were heard and disposed of through virtual hearings.

  1. E-filing of Cases:

Virtual hearings have lowered the burden on advocates to file their cases. All relevant documents can now be sent through online mediums without stepping out of their houses in the current situation.

  1. Reduced Workload:

This system is also said to have reduced the workload of the Court staff. There is no wastage of time and manpower like in the open Court. Everything can be handled in a much more easy way by simply verifying documents through the online portal through which filing is being completed.

  1. Live Streaming:

This method has ensured live streaming of hearings, resulting in transparency in the judicial system. Live streaming, especially in cases having national importance, reinforces public faith in the Judiciary. It also reduces crowding inside the Court, and people can have easy delivery of documents apart from providing a safe environment for vulnerable witnesses to testify.

CONS

While the legal fraternity is in favor of this transition, some have criticized it on the following grounds:

  1. Lack of Digital Infrastructure:  

Sadly, many Indian Courts do not have required essentials like computers, laptops, Wi-Fi, and smartphones. A major setback is that people face issues with their internet connection most of the time, or the power supply gets disrupted, and this interrupts the whole process of the Court.

  1. Lack of Digital Knowledge:

There are still many advocates, legal authorities, and clients who are not well versed with smartphones and the latest technology. A complete shift is difficult to digest.

It is also difficult for Court staff to adapt to this transformation. When cases are filed online, they have to print and scrutinize them. Many times there are errors, so the staff has to inform the advocates, wait for the correction, and then print the final copies, which are bulky, amounting to wastage of paper, time, and money.

  1. Unethical Code of Conduct:

Virtual hearings are considered defective as there have been many instances reported of awful conduct, especially by advocates.

  • On 12th August 2020, a senior advocate was spotted smoking a hookah during a hearing in the Rajasthan High Court.
  • In June 2020, a lawyer appeared in a virtual hearing of the Supreme Court while lying on bed and donning a T-shirt. The Supreme Court observed that lawyers have to be presentable and avoid showing inappropriate images.
  • In another instance, an advocate who forgot to un-mute himself was heard arguing with his wife, which busted a laugh in the Court.
  1. Non-Productive Outcomes:

Many advocates have stated that cross-examinations conducted in online hearings are not as effective as that in an open Court.

The physical appearance of witnesses or the accused helps the Judge notice their facial expression and body language, which plays an important role in detecting whether the person is lying or is being tutored by someone. However, here it becomes difficult to analyze the same.

Also, an advocate stands a better chance of convincing the Judge in an open Court depending upon his mood. But here, there is a lot of mental stress on the advocate as well as the Judges, which can largely hamper the result of the case.

  1. Difficulty in getting Fees from Clients:

The online system has reduced face-to-face interactions with clients resulting in the refusal of payment of fees to the advocates. Clients think that since hearings are virtual, their lawyers are not putting in any effort. It is a double whammy for the newly enrolled advocates.

  1. Misuse of Data:

Virtual hearings have brought security issues and a possibility of misuse of data. Personal information of litigants can be leaked through Court servers. Witnesses are at risk of being forced to give false testimonies. India has no comprehensive law on data protection, so there can be a violation of individuals’ right to privacy.

SUGGESTIONS

Before embarking on this giant technological leap, here are a few things that the Indian Court system needs to work on:

  1. Adequate training and education should be given to the judicial officers, advocates, and the Court staff on the flawless use of the online medium.
  2. A fully developed system with appropriate infrastructure, staff, and security have to be set up.
  3. E-filing centers have to be established in all Courts.
  4. The National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) has to be timely updated by all Courts to ensure transparency and accountability.
  5. A strict protocol has to be followed by all to prevent misconduct and mockery of the Judiciary.

CONCLUSION

It is rightly said that “Technology unleashes the value of time and enables multi-tasking!” Virtual Courts have gained immense popularity in these unpredictable times. This adaptation was indeed inevitable. It is, however, impossible to foresee for how long social distancing will continue. As of now, virtual hearings are and shall remain the new normal for the legal fraternity. Effective enforcement and cooperation among stakeholders will help us run the system smoothly. 

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