Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the consequent switch to virtual hearings, courts in India have been privy to strange and unpleasant faux pas on the part of lawyers and litigants appearing on video.
Just yesterday, a Madras High Court lawyer was suspended by the Tamil Nadu Bar Council and also had contempt of court proceedings initiated against him by the High Court after taking the term "physical" hearing to a whole new level. He was caught on camera canoodling with a woman while court proceedings were in progress.
The lawyer might have been unaware that he was on camera, but this was not an isolated incident. There have been repeated infractions prompting various High Courts and the Supreme Court to frequently caution lawyers to maintain decorum while appearing virtually.
Casuals in court
One of the first such instances was reported from the Rajasthan High Court in April 2020 when a lawyer appeared in his baniyan (vest) to argue a bail matter through video conferencing before Justice SP Sharma.
This prompted Justice Sharma to instruct the High Court Bar Association to urge all advocates to appear in uniform during hearings conducted through video conferencing.
However, such incidents still continued, with the Delhi High Court imposing a fine of ₹10,000 on a man who appeared for a virtual hearing in his vest.
In June 2020, an advocate appeared for a hearing before the Supreme Court while lying on his bed, wearing a t-shirt. The advocate admitted to the Court that it was "inappropriate" on his side to make such a court appearance. While accepting his apology, Justice S Ravindra Bhat stressed on the importance of advocates appearing before the Court in a "presentable" manner.
Vices on video
In August 2020, a lawyer was seen chewing gutka during a virtual hearing before the Supreme Court. When the Bench pulled him up, the counsel could only muster a meek "sorry".
In another virtual hearing before the top court, Senior Advocate Rajeev Dhavan was seen not so subtly smoking his hookah. The veteran lawyer continued taking puffs from the hookah even as another Senior Advocate was making arguments.
The Gujarat High Court in September 2020 imposed costs on an accused who was spotted "spitting" on camera during a virtual hearing. The same High Court had earlier deprecated the conduct of an advocate who had appeared before it while seated in a car and smoking a cigarette.
In June 2021, a lawyer attempted to appear before the Allahabad High Court via video conference while riding a scooter. A Division Bench of Justices Manoj Kumar Gupta and Syed Aftab Husain Rizvi cautioned the counsel and remarked that he should not repeat the act in future.
Later, the High Court also passed a judicial order stating that advocates appearing for court hearings through video conference while driving scooter, lounging on bed, wearing colourful clothes or putting on face pack cannot be accepted and emphasised on the importance of adhering to lawyer's dress code.
However, these orders seemed to have no effect on a lawyer who later appeared for a virtual hearing from inside his car.
"It was indeed shocking that the learned counsel for the applicant while sitting in a car, wants to address the Court on the merits of the case," Justice Rahul Chaturvedi had remarked.
The Orissa High Court too had its share of such experiences which were recounted in an order passed in September 2020. Lawyers eating on camera, arguing from gardens and moving cars, wife of lawyer appearing in video conference along with the lawyer, were some such instances cited by the Court.
Facing the music
Another noteworthy incident was when a fan managed to access the virtual hearing before the Delhi High Court in the case filed by actress Juhi Chawla challenging the rollout of 5G technology. The unidentified youth started singing songs from Chawla's movies while the hearing was in progress.
Justice JR Midha, who was hearing the case, initially asked the court staff to mute the concerned person. However, with the singing persisting, the Court eventually issued a contempt of court notice and asked the Delhi Police to trace the person.
The most recent was the instance of a man appearing semi-nude during a virtual hearing before the Karnataka High Court while Senior Counsel Indira Jaising was making arguments. Jaising proceeded to file a contempt of court case and a sexual harassment complaint against him.
"I confirm that a semi naked man was visible on the screen for a full 20 minutes despite my objection. I am making an official complaint for contempt of court and sexual harassment. It’s extremely disturbing in the middle of an argument in court," Jaising later tweeted about the incident.