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The Kerala High Court has certainly distinguished itself in allowing public access to the Court, effectively carrying out the mandate of open justice even during these trying times.
In a step ahead of most courts in the country, the Kerala High Court has opened virtual access to its hearings in urgent cases that are being taken up amidst the national Coronavirus lockdown.
As with other courts, the High Court was constrained to restrict its functioning as part of country-wide efforts to curb the spread of the virus.
However, a silver lining that has emerged is its decision to hold urgent hearings using Zoom links, which can be accessed by any member of the public.
The Court started conducting such digital hearings soon after it notified the suspension of regular Court work until April 14, earlier this month.
Now, a Division Bench of the High Court is even hearing a dispute involving Kerala and Karnataka, with counsel from across the two states making arguments from their offices.
Interestingly, the virtual hearings appear to have lent a certain flexibility to the Court’s functioning.
For instance, the Court was able to easily extend its sitting beyond ordinary working hours to after 6 pm on Wednesday while hearing the Karnataka-Kerala border dispute. This, after the Court was apprised that a meeting which could have determined the course of the case was still underway when it assembled.
The initial hearing in the matter was scheduled at 1:45 pm yesterday. The Court reconvened twice, once at 5:30 pm, and thereafter at 6:30 pm, while waiting for the meeting to get over. The hearing finally concluded a little after 7.30 pm.
In the ordinary course of things, it is unusual to have a Court sit beyond its normal working hours. While exceptions are made for urgent matters, it generally entails more effort to have the Bench and the appearing counsel to remain physically present in the Court premises. More so, when there are counsel involved from two different states.
The virtual mode of hearing also seems to have some potential in maintaining Court decorum.
For instance, the hearing in the Karnataka-Kerala border dispute saw an advocate seeking to make additional submissions in the matter, although he was not a party to the case presently.
The Court was disinclined to hear further submissions at the present stage from a non-party at the fag end of the hearing. Instead, it directed that the advocate file an intervention application first, which may be considered.
However, when the counsel continued to speak, requesting for some time to make submissions, the Court’s oral intimation that he would be muted in the conference resulted in prompt silence.
Today, the Court passed another significant order that may have wider public implications, when it stayed the Kerala government's move to allow the supply of alcohol on a doctor's prescription that the recipient is suffering from Alcohol Withdrawal Syndrome.
The Kerala High Court is certainly not alone in taking up cases through digital means.
Various High Courts across the country, as well as the Supreme Court, is now taking up urgent matters via video conferencing to ensure that the administration of justice does not come to a standstill while the Coronavirus holds the world to ransom.
In fact, the global pandemic seems to have catalysed the courts to finally move towards implementing the in principle decision to live-stream Court proceedings - an idea mooted by the Supreme Court back in September 2018.
However, the Kerala High Court has certainly distinguished itself in allowing public access to the Court, effectively carrying out the mandate of open justice even during these trying times.
One can only hope that the move will be carried further even after the pandemic has subsided.