On March 30, the Kerala High Court had set a precedent going live with the court hearings using an online video calling app which was accessed by even the common people.
Several courts, including the Supreme Court, have started hearing urgent matters on video conferencing given the need for social distancing following the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but Justice GS Patel took it to another level at the Bombay High Court by using popular video-conferencing software Zoom to create a virtual court with lawyers and audience as well.
While Justice Patel was sitting in his study for the court hearing, his staff and lawyers, who also joined in from their residences, were connected online. On March 30, the Kerala High Court had set a precedent going live with the court hearings using an online video calling app which was accessed by even the common people.
The Supreme Court’s Vidyo software allows lawyers to connect to the court but unlike the Kerala and Bombay high courts, the apex court has given livestream access to only a limited number of people; the media is allowed to watch the proceedings on TV in the court premises.
Senior lawyer and Congress national spokesperson AM Singhvi says that “Life even after Covid cannot be the same. Several new normals, although thrust upon us, should be institutionalised. Virtual litigation to an extent should happen even in the normal course, post-pandemic.”
Prior to the hearing, the court put out the ID for participants to log into the virtual court meeting – no password was required – and some basic rules. All microphones of those attending the meeting were to be muted by the administrator – Justice Patel – except those of the advocates making arguments.
Advocates, the ‘special directions’ read, were “expected to be in sober attire” and, in keeping with Justice Patel’s light-hearted banter at times, the note said “no enquiries as to what constitutes ‘sober attire’ will be entertained”. On the number of participants being restricted to a whopping 500, the directions said “as in a real-world court room, space is limited”.
Senior SC advocate KV Vishwanathan feels that “video conference hearings have heralded in a new era for the Indian Judiciary. Access to justice will acquire a new dimension. From the remote corners of the country, people will be able to access the highest court. Once institutionalised, it will reduce the cost of litigation and enhance the reach of the court.”
According to senior counsel CS Vaidyanathan, the move to go for full live streaming will take some time. “This is the best opportunity to overhaul the system. A paradigm shift is needed for future and not only during emergency. Physical presence in court should be severely curtailed. Documentation/petitions running into hundreds and thousands of pages can be done away with. Half of the pending cases can be resolved through mediation and videoconferencing.”
Senior lawyer and criminal law expert Siddharth Luthra says, “Some mechanisms have to be in place where documents can be uploaded for perusal of judges and CrPC and HC rules need to be amended so that the accused can also appear through videoconferencing. Eventually lawyers will adapt to this kind of regulated hearings and would get disciplined, thus, saving a lot of court’s time. As of now, lawyers argue endlessly.”
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, while welcoming the move, says, “It’s a good beginning and cannot be a temporary measure only. Initial technical glitches are there but these can be overcome gradually.”