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The Court today also took up the suggestions made by Senior Advocate Vikas Singh in a letter yesterday to decongest the courts through the long-term introduction of video conference hearings.
CJI SA Bobde observed these these suggestions should be given substantive consideration. He added that the court needs changes in the way it functions and that these issues will be considered after lockdown is lifted.
The Bench went on to further observe that the COVID-19 outbreak demands social distancing. To ensure the continuous functioning of the Court, every stakeholder expected to coordinate. To preserve the rule of law and the Constitution, social distances guidelines have to be followed, the Court said, adding that all hearings in congregation must necessarily be suspended.
The Court observed that it is necessary to ensure that Court premises do not contribute to the spread of the virus, and went on to intimate that it wants to give legal protection to the measures that have been employed by courts.
To this end, the directions issued under Article 142 of the Constituton by the Bench of CJI Bobde and Justices DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao include the following:
All measures that have been and shall be taken by this Court and by the High Courts, to reduce the need for the physical presence of all stakeholders within court premises and to secure the functioning of courts in consonance with social distancing guidelines and best public health practices shall be deemed to be lawful;
The Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorized to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technologies;
Consistent with the peculiarities of the judicial system in every state and the dynamically developing public health situation, every High Court is authorised to determine the modalities which are suitable to the temporary transition to the use of video conferencing technologies;
The concerned courts shall maintain a helpline to ensure that any complaint in regard to the quality or audibility of feed shall be communicated during the proceeding or immediately after its conclusion failing which no grievance in regard to it shall be entertained thereafter.
The District Courts in each State shall adopt the mode of Video Conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court.
The Court shall duly notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants who do not have the means or access to video conferencing facilities.
If necessary, in appropriate cases courts may appoint an amicus-curiae and make video conferencing facilities available to such an advocate.
Until appropriate rules are framed by the High Courts, video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage.
In no case shall evidence be recorded without the mutual consent of both the parties by video conferencing. If it is necessary to record evidence in a Court room the presiding officer shall ensure that appropriate distance is maintained between any two individuals in the Court.
The presiding officer shall have the power to restrict entry of persons into the court room or the points from which the arguments are addressed by the advocates.
No presiding officer shall prevent the entry of a party to the case unless such party is suffering from any infectious illness. However, where the number of litigants are many, the presiding officer shall have the power to restrict the numbers. The presiding officer shall in his discretion adjourn the proceedings where it is not possible to restrict the number.
The Court added that these directions have been issued to ensure that the Judiciary rises to face the unique challenge that has been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic. The orders will remain in place until further orders, the Bench added.
Read the Order:
The Secretary general of the Supreme Court and the Registrar General of all High Courts are also to connect to the DG NIC to ensure connectivity during this time.
The matter has now been adjourned for a period of three weeks. While wrapping up the hearing today, CJI Bobde added,
The Bench today also took note of glitches reported during the use of video-conferencing at the Supreme Court on April 3. In this regard, CJI Bobde has asked the Department of Justice and NIC Director to look into the "serious problems with the sitting of the court on Friday.” The Court added,
Attorney General KK Venugopal today told the Court that he had also faced issues before he could connect for the video conference hearing. He observed,
AG Venugopal further noted that the NIC must look into which is the most efficient and cheap application that can be used by all lawyers across the country.
During the hearing, the CJI also observed that it would not make any rules to specify which application must be used to carry the virtual functioning of courts. The Bench observed that High Courts have been given a free charter to use any application that works in their jurisdiction.
The Court proceeded to opine that it would not take up matters concerning the specific mode for virtual hearings until an announcement comes from the Government on the lockdown. If the lockdown Is lifted, the Court said it would hear the issue. If it is not, the Court would accordingly examine what can be done, the Bench said.
The DG NIC, on her part, informed the Court that there are three things required for smooth video-conferencing i.e. a good broadband connection, good devices and the conduct of people since if one person is speaking, the others must put their devices on mute
The Court was further told that the NIC will construct guidelines on how to conduct video conferencing calls and that the same would be sent to courts and lawyers. It was also informed that NIC state officials would be appointed to liaise with and support state High courts in these respects.