A group of young lawyers have requested the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana and Chairperson of e-committee of Apex court, Justice DY Chandrachud to continue the system of virtual/ hybrid hearing of cases at the top court on all days including Wednesdays and Thursdays when only physical hearings are currently allowed.
These lawyers who have less than 7 years experience at the Bar, have highlighted the advantages that virtual hearing offers in terms of accessibility to the Supreme Court from distant places and increased transparency.
"Virtual hearings have prompted the legal process to be more egalitarian and equitable. Since the Supreme Court does not have regional branches, both the litigants and the lawyers outside Delhi find it on difficult to travel to Delhi for attending the hearings, both economically and infrastructurally. This leads to a significant loss of money, time and energy for outstation persons, especially since traveling to Delhi from geographically distant places make it almost impossible for persons to arrive. Virtual hearings are cost-effective and have led to significant economic benefits for the legal system as a whole," the letter said.
The Supreme Court had started hearing cases virtually in March 2020 when COVID-19 pandemic struck. It had attempted to revert to physical hearing March 2021 when the third wave struck.
The top court had, therefore, continued virtual hearing till October 2021.
On October 7, 2021 a standard operating procedure (SOP) was issued mandating that all cases on Wednesday and Thursday will be heard only physically.
This SOP was modified on October 22, 2021 leaving a window open for some cases to be conducted virtually but at the discretion of the Bench or if court room is overcrowded.
The present letter has requested that the option to appear virtually should be kept open even on Wednesdays and Thursdays.
With regard to the advantages of virtual hearings, the letter also highlighted the transparency factor since it allows increased accommodation of lawyers and media personnel in matters especially for cases of constitutional significance.
"Physical hearings have logistical limitations on how many individuals can be accommodated in a single court room whereas digital technology has surpassed this drawback. Digitalising the files via e-courts system has aided and accelerated the benefits of virtual hearing," the letter said.
Virtual hearings are also environmental friendly since the number flight journeys and vehicular travel for lawyers to the court are easily avoided, it was stated.
"At a time when air pollution threatens healthy living conditions in Delhi, virtual hearing has emerged as a great boon. The Supreme Court on 13 November has expressed serious concerns over the air pollution," the letter added.
It was also pointed out that several members of the legal fraternity including retired and present judges have ever since the onset of the pandemic, commented on the merits of virtual hearings.
Former Central Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi wrote to former Chief Justice of India SA Bobde earlier this year mentioning that it would be a to go back to physical hearings.
Pertinently, the letter also reminded that the resources spent on developing infrastructural and technological capabilities will be abandoned if virtual hearings are ceased.
Therefore, regardless of the presence of COVID-19, virtual hearings should continue and lawyers should have the to opt either for virtual or physical hearings, as was first being contemplated by the Supreme Court.
"It is requested that necessary steps may be taken for resuming virtual hearing on all days or in the alternative, to facilitate hybrid mode of hearing on all days at the Supreme Court. It is requested that the SOP dated 07.10.2021 may kindly be modified accordingly," the letter said.
The Supreme Court is also currently seized of a petition seeking a declaration that hearing through virtual mode is a fundamental right and seeking a directive to all High Courts not to discontinue with the option of video conference and virtual court hearings without the permission of the Supreme Court’s e-committee.
However, during the hearing of the case on October 8, the top court had taken a dim view of a prayer saying that allowing such a plea could prove to be the death knell for physical courts.