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Following today's hearing, the Court has also issued a list of conditions to be strictly followed by participants attending open-access video conference hearings in the future. The next hearing is scheduled on April 11.
The Bombay High Court today conducted its first ever open-access video conference hearing on an experimental basis, which was hosted on a Zoom link capable of accommodating up to 500 participants.
A Single Judge Bench of Justice GS Patel commenced the hearings at noon, going on to pass orders in about nine matters until around 2 pm.
After hearing submissions for rival parties, complete orders for these matters were dictated by the judge during the video conference hearing.
Before the hearing commenced, Justice Patel cautioned those attending the conference against unwanted interruptions. In the interest of ensuring a smooth hearing, the judge also directed all present to mute their microphones immediately, save for the counsel arguing the matter being heard at the time.
“We are trying to get through this list as fast possible. Switch off your mobile phones”, the participants were told.
However, when the noises continued to interrupt the hearings - as more entrants joined and others omitted to mute their microphones - the Court thought it best to give the host the authority to mute all present. Justice Patel added,
“I do not want interruptions, I have given host permission to remove anyone who violates instructions. Once you are removed, you will not be allowed back in."
For the rest of today's session, the Court unmuted counsel as and when their matters came up for hearing. Thereafter, the hearings took place more or less without any major glitches.
The last case taken up before the session was wrapped up concerned a plea for anticipatory bail.
Justice Patel noted that there appeared to be no urgency involved in the matter, allaying the counsel’s apprehensions about imminent arrest by remarking,
“The police are too busy implementing the lockdown… nobody is chasing you.”
As the counsel pushed for ad interim relief, the judge went on to remark, “Supreme Court has said take people out of jail, why would they put you in jail?”
The Court declined to entertain the matter on an urgent basis, and directed that the plea be posted before an appropriate Bench on April 15.
On two occasions, participants accidentally shared screens from their individual devices on the video feed. However, this did not cause significant disruption, and the judge was able to continue dealing with the case before him, while the screen image issue was sorted.
This apart, another issue that cropped up concerned the receipt of filings by opposing counsel. On two occasions, Public Prosecutor Raja Thakare told the Court he had not received any papers or instructions in the matter.
At the end of the session today, Justice Patel also sought for feedback on the efficacy of the experiment from the counsel who appeared today.
Advocate Niteen Pradhan commented that it was “frankly a really wonderful experience”, adding in a lighter vein that, “the first thing that I liked was that all the controls are with the judge. You can mute anyone.”
Justice Patel noted that a problem that still remained to be addressed was accessing physical documents filed in the matter. He observed, that there would be difficulty on both sides if the restrictions on movement continue. To resolve the issue, he mused that both the Bar and the Bench would have to agree on a digital compilation of documents.
The session ended on an abrupt note, when the microphones of all those listening in on the conference were simultaneously unmuted. With noise disruptions continuing unabated, the judge was also heard remarking, "this is the whole problem", before the meeting ended.
During the session, Justice Patel also added that if any further suggestions are to be made concerning such video conference hearings, the same may be sent to the Secretary of the nearest Bar Association, and not to the Court Registry. He emphasised that the Registry would not respond to the same.
Earlier, the Kerala High Court had also opened virtual access to its hearings in urgent cases that are being taken up amidst the national Coronavirus lockdown, using the Zoom app.
The scale of participation by outsiders in these hearings was, however, far less when compared to today's session in the Bombay High Court.
Following today's hearing, the High Court has also issued a circular laying out restrictions and conditions to be followed by all participants to the video conference hearings. These conditions include:
No recording under any circumstances: Clandestine or illicit recording is no different from an illicit recording of a regular court proceeding, the Court has cautioned.
Though virtual, this is nonetheless a court hearing, and therefore appropriate court conduct is required: It has been noted that court decorum was not maintained by many who had joined the conference on April 9. The Court has cautioned that participants must be muted on entry and have their video off. The Court will unmute those who are required to speak when the concerned case is taken up. Those who do not follow these directions will be summarily ejected from the meeting, and no complaint will be entertained.
All (not just Advocates) are expected to be in sober attire: The circular adds "that means no tee shirts, under-vests with nothing else, etc. Even those only visiting are to dress decently. No enquiries as to what constitutes ‘sober attire’ will be entertained."
The hosts and co-hosts are authorised to remove without notice or warning any persons who violate these conditions. Persons removed will not be able to re-join. There is no redressal mechanism against removal.
There are no ‘fixed times’ for listed matters. They will be taken serially as they would during a regular court hearing.
Limited numbers of participants: The circular notes that as in a real-world court room, the space is limited. There can be at most 500 participants. Those who are not advocates appearing in the listed matters should yield to the advocates whose matters are listed.