Justice DY Chandrachud
Justice DY Chandrachud

Virtual Courts are not a substitute for open Court hearings, had to be resorted to in the pandemic: Justice DY Chandrachud

During a webinar conducted on Sunday by NALSAR's Nyaya Forum, the judge also emphasised that it was important that technology is used for "inclusive justice", and that it "does not become a means of exclusion."

Shruti Mahajan

Virtual court hearings are not a substitute for the open Court system, but it is something that the Courts had to resort to on account of the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic, said Chairman of the e-committee of the Supreme Court, Justice DY Chandrachud on Sunday.

Speaking in a webinar on "Future of Virtual Courts and Access to Justice in India", organized by the Nyayam Forum of the NALSAR University , Justice Chandrachud said that the Open Court system is the "spine" of our legal system and that it cannot be displaced by the virtual court system.

The Judge added that the pandemic and the subsequent lockdown brought many changes to the way Courts function, starting with limiting the number of lawyers in Courtrooms and frequent sanitization, to moving to video conferencing for conducting hearings of urgent matters.

"...virtual court hearings are not some sort of a panacea or a substitute to open court hearings... We had no choice in the pandemic but to resort to it."
Justice Chandrachud said.

Pertinently, he also added that the Court's responsibility to safeguard the rights of citizens and ensure governmental accountability remains even in public health crises. In this regard, he observed.

"Emergencies vest substantial powers in the executive. During a public-health crisis, increased government action may be necessary to preserve public health and welfare. However, irrespective of government actions and restrictions, it is court’s responsibility to protect the rights of citizens, to ensure governmental accountability and the rule of law."
Justice DY Chandrachud

After the lockdown was put in place, the functioning of the Court could not have been suspended, given that the criminal justice system cannot function without Courts.

Thus, the system of virtual hearing was adopted. Justice Chandrachud said that while by and large the hearings were smooth, there were some technical glitches. However, the same was only natural, the Judge said, given that this technology was resorted to now only on account of the pandemic.

He added that while we may wish to return to the open court system, the aim should also be to develop the technology to some extent to empower the Courts to be fully functional virtually as well.

"We want to increase functionality and may even return to open court, but we do not want to throw out the baby with the bathwater... The long-term goal of the e-courts project is to ensure that all courts in India are capable, where and when necessary."
Justice Chandrachud said.

The technology is a leveller, the Judge said, highlighting that it gives an equal platform, footing, and opportunity to anyone arguing. Virtual hearings empower young lawyers. However, inclusivity is an issue that needs to be remembered.

The Judge also indicated that technology is being developed for making the e-filing modules disabled-friendly to ensure that lawyers from all backgrounds use the system effectively.

"Technology should be used for inclusive justice", Justice Chandrachud said, pointing out that the data suggests that a large section of the people still do not have access to technology and the internet. Therefore, it is important to ensure that this "technological divide does not become a means of exclusion."

Being the e-committee Chairman, Justice Chandrachud also highlighted that in terms of technology, the two major developments that have been brought in are e-filing and, of course, virtual hearings.

While substantial work has gone behind readying the infrastructure for these changes, he observed that it is equally important to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) and impart training and demonstrations.

Justice Chandrachud also listed the important projects undertaken by the e-committee, which include SOPs for digitisation of records, for e-filing, developing modalities and guidelines for live streaming, among others.

He went on to note that the biggest hurdle is not the virus itself but the change of mindset required to embrace technology. Justice Chandrachud noted that it takes time and effort to re-wire our brains to new ways of doing things.

He acknowledged that even he was not accustomed to digital files until recently, but that with assistance, his digital awareness has improved. "Most importantly, once I saw the benefits, I was willing to learn", he said.

He added that going forward, he hopes that lawyers will look at technology critically and immediately try and use it for better justice delivery.

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