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538 matters taken on board, Open Court does not imply unlimited/unregulated public access: Supreme Court report on hearings during COVID-19

The Supreme Court's note asserts that "the traditional Open Court system, in its physical manifestation, and new age Virtual Court System are not antithetical to each other."

Debayan Roy

The Supreme Court has released a report on the progress of hearings via video conferencing, necessitated by the ongoing COVID-19 lockdown.

While addressing criticism levelled against the possible extension of virtual hearings beyond the lockdown, the report states that public access to an open court system cannot be “unlimited and unregulated”.

The note draws a detailed comparison between the open court system and the hearings being conducted via video conferencing, and how both aim to impart justice. It states,

"... the traditional Open Court system, in its physical manifestation, and new age Virtual Court System are not antithetical to each other; on the contrary, both systems could definitely co-exist, delivering qualitative justice, wherever deployed in light of extant circumstances."

However, the note makes it clear that video conferencing as a means of hearing is here to stay and that reservations on how the system is not open to the public are misplaced.

“Access to public in an Open Court system, does not imply in any manner that unlimited and unregulated access to members of public at large has to be granted inside a Court of Law, for its functioning to be witnessed and/or validated by them. Courts of Law as public places, in more senses than one, are different from Public Parks or such other Public Places/Spaces."
Note issued by Supreme Court

Some of the broad points that the note puts out in the public domain are:

  • Open Court is not an end in itself, but a medium for fair adjudication;

  • Open Court hearings cannot be claimed as a matter of absolute right;

  • Open Court necessitates access to litigants and public, and/or their representatives, but not their bodily presence together in any given place and that there may be alternate models of Open Court system, in its physical sense.

It further states,

"The argument that the hearings are not taking place in general public view does not hold water as, even before the pandemic, access of the general public was not being allowed and was regulated so that no inconvenience is caused to the Bar members, and also to minimize security threats and instead, members of the media, as public representatives, were being granted access in each Court room."

Statistics of virtual hearings held during the COVID-19 Lockdown

As on May 1, 2020, the Supreme Court has conducted virtual hearings for a total of 22 days. 116 benches had been constituted to hear cases - 43 benches for main matters and 73 benches for review petitions.

During this period, the Court has taken on board a total of 538 matters, along with 297 connected matters. It has delivered verdicts in 57 cases and 268 connected matters.

Additionally, 49 special leave petitions, 92 writ petitions, and 138 review petitions have been taken up.

The report also reveals that the Delhi High Court has taken up 623 matters during the virtual hearings conducted from April 16 to May 1.

How foreign courts have been functioning

The note further details how courts in foreign jurisdictions have been functioning during the COVID-19 lockdown.

From March 23, the United Kingdom's Supreme Court building was closed to the public and the registry started operating remotely. However, from the available video recordings, at least until March 18, open court hearings took place in the court complex. A video of a hearing dated April 22 indicates remote participation.

In another example, all oral arguments in the US Supreme Court scheduled for the month of March and April 2020 were postponed to May 2020. As indicated on its website, hearings (telephonic conference) have been scheduled to begin from May 4. A total of 10 cases have been listed.

Other examples cited include courts from Singapore, Australia and Canada.

Read the note:

Note on Open Court Hearing.pdf
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