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Parliamentary Standing Committee recommends continuation of virtual courts post-pandemic, bats for live-streaming of court proceedings

"The Committee fully understands that Virtual Courts have their own shortcomings, however they constitute an advancement over the existing system, and therefore, on the overall, they are worth embracing."

Debayan Roy

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice headed by Rajya Sabha MP Bhupender Yadav has recommended that virtual courts continue to function even beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

The 103rd report on the functioning of virtual court proceedings through video conferencing also states that ‘Justice delayed is Justice denied’ but ‘Justice hurried is also Justice buried’. The Committee is thus of the view that,

“...virtual Courts is a mechanism that will strike a balance between these two extremes and extend expeditious Justice to the litigant public without compromising quality.”

The report goes on to state,

To continue with the functioning of Virtual Courts in all the Courts even during non pandemic time, the Committee feels that the present system should be allowed to continue on an experimental basis with the consent of all parties for certain categories of cases like Appeals etc and final hearings where physical presence of the parties/counsels is not required and online virtual hearing alone is sufficient. The expenditure involved in the establishment of a large number of Tribunals /Courts can be cut down sizeably. This will also reduce the crowd in the court and cut down other litigation costs and overheads.

The standing committee has stated that it is “unhappy to note that e-Courts Integrated Mission mode project is progressing at a tortoise’s pace”.

"Without proper infrastructure in place, Virtual hearing of cases is an impossible proposition. Moreover, the Committee feels that the benefits of Virtual Courts will percolate down only when all Court Complexes are fully ICT enabled. The Committee strongly recommends the Department of Justice to take stock of the situation, introspect, identify the bottlenecks and take necessary remedial measures to ensure that the targets are achieved more ambitiously in prescribed timeframe."

103rd Parliamentary Standing Committee Report

VC facilities in Tribunals, subordinate judiciary

The report, which was presented today to Rajya Sabha Chairman Venkaiah Naidu, recommends that virtual courts be extended permanently to various Appellate Tribunals like TDSAT, IPAB, NCLAT, located across the country, as these do not require personal appearances of the parties/advocates. It states,

“Permanent Virtual Courts can also be established for hearing matters relating to Administrative and other Tribunals at the time of final hearing. This will cut down the cost and increase the efficiency in disposal of the cases without being unnecessarily being adjourned. The Committee is also of the opinion that necessary Amendments may be brought in laws to legalise Virtual Courts and its proceedings without being unnecessarily challenged before Courts.”

The report also notes that the current infrastructure in district and subordinate courts across the country are not equipped to conduct virtual hearings. Since the transition to virtual courts will require big investment, the Committee has mooted the feasibility of new financing models like public-private partnerships.

Addressing accessibility issues

On the topic of accessibility, the Committee has also recommended the involvement of private agencies/service providers to help people who are not tech-savvy in connecting with courts by taking video conferencing equipment to their doorsteps. Further,

"The Committee is of the opinion that the Judiciary may also consider such innovative solutions as launching mobile videoconferencing facilities for the benefit of advocates and people living in remote areas."

To address the issue of connectivity, the Committee has recommended that the Union Ministry of Communications step up efforts to ensure timely implementation of the National Broadband Mission.

It has also been suggested that State Bar Councils hold classes to educate lawyers on technology.

"The committee also feels that since the stake holders are advocates, the Bar council of India should advise the respective state bar councils to conduct crash classes to equip the advocates for handling Online/Virtual Courts. The Bar Council of India should also address the problems of advocates hailing from the weaker sections relating to acquisition of necessary infrastructure to support online Virtual Courts in view of the transition having taken place suddenly."

In order to educate budding lawyers on the use of digital platforms to take part in virtual hearings, the Committee has asked the Bar Council of India to introduce a computer course as one of the subjects in three-year/five-year courses.

Live-streaming of proceedings

Importantly, the Committee has noted that the world over, court proceedings are recorded in some form or the other and that live-streaming of certain proceedings will promote transparency.

"The apex Court has time and again emphasized the significance of live streaming of Court proceedings in promoting openness and transparency which in turn reinforce public faith in judicial system. The Committee agrees with the observation made by the apex Court that live streaming Court proceedings, especially cases of constitutional and national importance having an impact on public at large or a section of the public will promote transparency and openness. The Judiciary may also consider broadcasting virtual hearings of certain specified categories of cases to further the principle of open justice and open Court."

103rd Parliamentary Standing Committee Report

Access to Justice

The report notes that virtual hearings can considerably reduce the cost of litigation and ease access to justice.

"...both advocates and litigants have wider choice and this will result in substantial reduction of costs associated with litigation in appellate Courts which may otherwise require instructing a local lawyer. Litigants need not leave their work to attend Court as they can access proceedings from their home or office. Virtual proceedings also mitigate significant logistical costs incurred in the transportation of prisoners between jail and Court."

Further, it is noted that virtual courts can expedite processes and procedures which would otherwise be protracted and laborious. Virtual courts also promote the idea of 'proportional justice', which is defined in the report as,

"The principle of Proportionate Justice requires that the expense, speed, complexity and the extent of combativeness of any case should be proportionate to the substance and scale of that case. The Committee feels that there should be some mechanism to segregate simple cases from complex ones...Petty cases should be dealt with swiftly in a reasonable timeframe...."

Issues faced by lawyers

Some of the issues lawyers had with virtual hearings, as noted by the Committee, include - advocate can understand the mood of the judges and stands a better chance at convincing them during physical hearings, video conferencing may distort non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures etc, coordination between briefing counsel and arguing counsel is completely lost in virtual hearings, cases that require elaborate hearing on facts and points of law cannot be effectively heard and disposed of by virtual courts, whole purpose of judicial tools such as cross examination would be defeated, etc.

Acknowledging these concerns, the Committee states,

"The Committee fully understands that Virtual Courts have their own shortcomings, however they constitute an advancement over the existing system, and therefore, on the overall, they are worth embracing. These current shortcomings might be overcome through existing and emerging technologies. Periodical interaction of bar and bench with the technical persons by establishing committees in each Courts/Tribunal will help sort out the grievances relating to Virtual Courts and other issues then and there."

103rd Parliamentary Standing Committee Report

Calling for the integration of virtual courts into the legal ecosystem, the report concludes,

"The concept of Virtual Courts has gained immense ground during COVID-19 Pandemic times. It is and will remain the new reality and the new normal...The Committee believes that this move will unlock the Courts and also mitigate the inconvenience of attending Courts as long distance travels can be dispensed with and proceedings become less expensive as well."

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