The moment I enter the pristine building of the Supreme Court, or for that matter any other court, my spirits are lifted; and I am filled with the zeal to argue and be a part of the machinery that has stood as the epitome of ‘Rule of Law’ since the very day of Independence.
There are many stated and unstated courtroom etiquettes that a lawyer must learn; the varied nuances of this craft that might help a lawyer make a wonderful impression on the judges. These involve basic and simple things which are often considered trivial and are ignored. Once, a fellow lawyer told me that even the manner in which a lawyer holds her files is an art, and these mundane things reflect a lawyer’s mindset and approach.
These little things hold substantial value in the profession. While arguing a case, reading the expressions on the learned judge’s face is as important as making a valid argument. The expressions on the judges’ faces can help understand their inclination and whether the point being put has been conveyed to the other side or not. It is not just the facial expressions that serve as an important aid while arguing; it is also how the judges interact with each other and their surroundings that can help a lawyer mould arguments.
These intricate details are often overlooked and lost when proceedings take place in a virtual setting. The same happens with the arguing counsel. The passion and the zeal with which she would argue in the physical setting is diluted and the entire process, as has been wisely put by Senior Advocate Rebecca John, “feels plastic”.
Every court and every judge has a distinct style of hearing and accepting arguments that one can only understand by observation, which I feel is not possible in court proceedings via video conference. Former Justice Deepak Gupta, in his farewell ceremony held via video conferencing, advised young lawyers to watch court proceedings and observe senior lawyers to learn court craft. A budding amateur lawyer would miss out on these experiences of learning the basics of the art of advocacy in a virtual setup.
Recent changes being witnessed in the courts across the country have provided an opportunity to junior counsel to argue a case when the seniors are busy, for example, in another court. Judges often encourage junior counsel to argue the matter and assist the court in the proceedings.
Last year, in November, the Delhi High Court made a passing remark:
“Courts have a duty to encourage junior counsels… and ought to hear them if they are ready to assist the Court”.
The Court urged that “the filing counsels must encourage junior advocates and counsels to make submissions and argue the matters”.
Sometimes, when people argue their case in-person, the Bench often turns to a lawyer, keenly observing the proceeding in the corner of the court, having experience in arguing before that judge, to present the case and assist the Court. Judges often turn to young lawyer, helping them gain experience in return. If video conferencing becomes the new norm, such rare golden opportunities to argue and learn at the initial stage of one’s legal career would be lost.
Anecdotally, a rare phenomenon was witnessed in the Supreme Court, when a five-judge bench was patiently hearing a young lawyer arguing a Constitutional matter for almost four hours, spread over two days. When he concluded his arguments, one of the judges remarked that even though most of his arguments were not to the point, they heard him patiently just to encourage young talents like him. I believe it is almost impossible for the judges to portray such patience over video conference.
That intense struggle of rushing from one court to another, and being on one’s legs, teaches patience and imbibes in one the quality to work effectively under pressure. These may seem laborious tasks, but they help prepare a lawyer for the adventurous journey ahead. Sitting in the comforts of our offices, connecting to one court via one link and to another via another, pleasantly watching the display board on one’s computer screen, is hardly going to impart any value to a young lawyer. Rather, it will make us, what our generation already is, lazy and inactive.
As has already been widely discussed, conducting court proceedings would not be feasible given the lack of technical infrastructure in the country. It will be a metro-centric exercise and would not have a pan-India application.
Everyone understands that during these unprecedented times, it’s not possible to have court proceedings conducted in a physical setting. And to keep the justice system closer to people, it is required that the courts keep functioning even if it is through video conferencing. It is commendable how fast the courts have been able to adapt to this new technology. The future can be a mix of both physical courts as well as use of technology; using technology to make the judicial system more efficient. Virtual courts cannot be and should not be substituted for physical court proceedings.
The walks in the corridors of the Court, discussion in canteens on everything under the sun, experiencing the thrill while listening to different experiences of lawyers from all across the country, preparing a case in those compact chambers, the anxiety while running from one court to another lest it is called, and finally getting a seat to sit after 4 o’ clock. All these minor things have become an integral part of the practice. While we prepare ourselves for the future, I just hope the art, that is this legal profession, is never lost.
The author is a practising lawyer at the Supreme Court of India, currently associated with the Chambers of Senior Advocate Rupinder Singh Suri.