Virtual Court ( E-court’s ) means a virtual magistrates‟ court created by video links between police custody suites and a magistrates‟ court together with an electronic document sharing system to which all relevant parties have access.
On the last day, before the summer vacations commenced, Justice SJ Kathawalla of the Bombay High Court heard matters beyond 3.00 AM. The High Court witnessed lawyers, court staff and a judge sitting in the court to complete his work on more than 130 matters. This was a rare occasion in the court’s 156 years’ history. The measure is laudable, but also highlights the utter need of transformation of court process.
Until recently, technology has been vastly used in diverse organizations & spheres of life and resulted in enhanced efficiently & effectiveness. Although the information revolution arrived in India in the 1990s, it has not reached the Indian judicial system with the same efficiency & effectiveness. The subordinate judiciary is still running on manual systems.
There is a general acceptance that Indian Judicial system suffers from case delay due to the use of antiquated methods. Nearly 2.8 crore uses are pending. Complete digitization of courts is long overdue. Due to lack of e-filing facilities, manual filing results in wastage of paper which subsequently impacts our environment.
It has repeatedly been suggested by judicial commissions & committees that a sound judicial management information system should be introduced in India. It will ensure case management; file management etc. and thereby reduce pendency. Courts In USA, Singapore are vastly digitalized.
In July and August 2019 a Delhi district court launched a virtual courts web portal with the support of the E-Committee of the Supreme Court of India so that “residents can make online payment of e-challan [an electronic form of a traffic ticket] issued to them” and “will no longer have to visit the courts to deposit the fine.” The portal allows “stakeholders an easy and affordable vehicle of adjudication” and aims at eliminating the “presence of litigant or lawyer in the court and adjudication of the case online.” It currently focuses on traffic violations but “will soon be widened to include cases under the Negotiable Instruments Act and claims related to motor accidents,” according to one report.
Virtual courts have been introduced as part of Phase II of the eCourts Project for the information and communications technology (ICT) enablement of India’s judiciary. The entire court ismanaged through a computer although initially, a judge will be put in charge of the Virtual Court so that there is no hitch or any glitch that is encountered. Gradually, the court will be managed by the computer and simple compoundable cases such as traffic challans, cases under local and special laws, adjournments and so on can be taken care of by the computer.
Through this process, “it will not be necessary for lawyers and litigants to attend the court premises thereby reducing footfalls and; through the Virtual Court the time of the judges also saved and can be utilised for some other important activity.”
On April 6, 2019, the Supreme Court of India issued a set of guidelines for the functioning of high courts and district courts with the use of teleconferencing technology during the COVID-19 pandemic. On April 5 the Times of India reported that the Supreme Court’s e-committee chairman Justice D.Y. Chandrachud “held extensive deliberations with chief justices and judges heading e-committees of 23 high courts on Friday afternoon and resolved that ‘e-filing will be enabled in all courts including trial courts across the country for hearing urgent case through video-conferencing. ”
A number of high courts have issued new or updated directions on videoconferencing , and some courts have started public hearings of cases through videoconferencing. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, the Bombay High Court has reportedly conducted hearings through the Zoom public meeting app.
According to the HINDUSTAN TIMES report:
It has suggested permanent virtual proceedings for appellate tribunals like Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal, Intellectual Property Appellate Tribunal, National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, etc. “This will cut down the cost and increase the efficiency in disposal of the cases without being unnecessarily being adjourned. Virtual courts can deliver faster results with fewer resources. They can also reduce commute time to courts and waiting time at the courts,” the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice said in an interim report submitted to Rajya Sabha chairperson M Venkaiah Naidu on Friday.
The report underlined digital justice is “cheaper and faster”. The panel added it addresses locational and economic handicaps, ensures the safety of vulnerable witnesses providing testimony besides expediting processes and procedures.
The Bharatiya Janata Party lawmaker Bhupender Yadav-led panel said virtual courts are an improvement over traditional ones “as they are most affordable, citizen-friendly and offer greater access to justice”.
Court proceedings have been held digitally for over five months to adhere to social distancing norms as part of the measures to check the spread of the pandemic. The Supreme Court late last month notified standard operating procedures (SOPs) to govern physical court hearings which were expected to commence soon. The physical hearings of matters are expected to initially begin only in three courtrooms, the SOPs said. The court was expected to take a call on how many lawyers and litigants will be permitted inside the courtroom, depending on the capacity and physical distancing norms.
Physical hearings of cases in the Supreme Court were suspended on March 23 in view of the pandemic. The apex court has been hearing cases via video conferencing since then. The top court issued a circular on March 23 suspending entry of lawyers and litigants to the court premises and directing that only urgent cases will be taken up for hearing through video conferencing.
The panel’s recommendations have come even as various Bar councils have questioned the efficacy of the digital proceedings and pointed out the limitations of the infrastructure required for them. They have said digital proceedings favour tech-savvy advocates besides depriving opportunities to many lawyers to change the course of arguments based on the changing dynamics of a case during hearings.
As many as 13 out of the 25 high courts in the country have introduced and enabled electronic filing of cases. But the district and subordinate courts at many places have been lagging behind due to lack of infrastructure and experience in handling and transitioning to virtual hearings.
Virtual Courts provide a tremendous amount of benefits:
(1) They provide an opportunity for lawyers to argue from anywhere. Lawyers and parties spread across in different states, and even countries, can file cases and argue their case from the comfort of their home. This provides the dual benefits of cost saving and time saving.
(2) Cases can be heard from several High Courts in a single day. A lawyer can argue in the Gujarat High Court in the morning, and be present for a case in the Delhi High Court later in the day. This is not possible with physical court hearings.
(3) Virtual Court system leads to greater productivity. Justice Chandrachud says, The work of 20 judges is now being handled by one judge. It enables a wider participation of advocates and judges.
(4) As information is available on a real time basis, digital signing of orders ensures smooth and instant communication of bail orders.
However, there are major roadblocks too:
The lack of literacy in the population has also acted as a bane in digitalizing the database completely. Virtual courts and its system is difficult to adopt for many lawyers. This leads to an imaginary demarcation between the privileged and the non privileged advocates in our country.
The researcher believes that complete digitization is not suited for the indian scenario unless the advocates are completely trained in this aspect.. Also, the small shops operating at Subordinate courts are likely to lose their livelihood in case of excessive dependence on virtual court.
(2)THREAT TO OPEN COURT
Open courts implies that the public has access to witness court proceedings as a reporter, intern, spectator. Section 153B in CPC, section 327 in CrPC are legislative provisions governing the same. Digital courts curb this access to the public at large.
(3) DEMEANOR OF WITNESS AND RECORDING OF FALSE EVIDENCE
Virtual hearings do not permit the judge to scrutinize the facial expressions and bodily movement that are extremely instrumental in ascertaining the truth. It may also pose threats of identity thefts.
Virtual courts, the report said, can address this issue. The committee concluded that physical courts alone will not be sufficient. It added virtual courts will have to be integrated into the country’s legal ecosystem. As a first step towards this, the judiciary should identify cases that can be heard by virtual courts, it suggested. “The Committee is of the view that all such matters where personal presence may be dispensed with can be transferred from regular Court establishments to Virtual Courts. …Virtual adjudication will bring massive benefits across the system,” the committee said.
It also recommended extending virtual courts to cover arbitration hearings. “For instance, if national and international arbitrations are allowed to be conducted through Virtual Courts, there will be hardly any requirement for real-time travel to distant locations. …this move will unlock the Courts and also mitigate the inconvenience of attending Courts as long-distance travel can be dispensed with and proceedings become less expensive as well.”
Yadav referred to virtual courts in countries like the US and Singapore and said they have also done a lot of work on aspects like the conduct of remand matters virtually to prevent the movement of prisoners between courts and jails. “We have effectively used virtual courts during the lockdown period wherein more than 1.8 million cases were registered across the country, of which nearly 800,000 have been disposed of.”
VIRTUAL COURTS SYSTEM IN INDIA AFTER CORONA VIRUS LOCKDOWN:
The Supreme Court did not stop for even a single day since the pandemic made its presence felt in mid-March and the nation came to a standstill during the months of lockdown.The court completes 100 days of the virtual court (VC) system, agreeing that things may not be perfect but they are evolving.
A statement issued by the court in Wednesday said 1,021 Benches were constituted since the inception of the virtual court system between March 23 and August 20.
The virtual courts have 15,596 cases on board and have disposed of 4,300 cases approximately. Over 50,000 advocates represented their cases during this period.
The statement even records the number of footfalls — advocates, litigants and mediapersons — to the video conferencing hall at a whopping 65,000.
“Covid-19 infection arrived with the suddenness of an ambush and the ferocity of a fire as it spread across the human communities across the globe. It distinguished itself with deviant behavior, unpredictable symptoms, total camouflage…,” the apex court’s statement said.
The court said the “core functionality” of open court hearings was crippled by the onset and the “sudden lockdown”. The virtual court system was born out of the necessity for an alternative.
The statement said the Supreme Court Registry functioned with 30% staff strength. Though there were no fatalities, 125 staffers and their families were infected.
“No doubt, the VC system needs improvement and its constantly been evolving. Despite all these challenges and hurdles, hearing of more than 15000 matters indicates the success of hearing through video conferencing in Supreme Court of India,” the statement said.
The virtual court system was evolved under the eCommmittee of the Supreme Court chaired by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud.
KERALA AND BOMBAY HIGH COURTS LEAD THE WAY FOR LIVE STREAMING
Mandatory video conferencing of proceedings is an opportunity for the judiciary to implement its ruling in Swapnil Tripathi in its true spirit. Kerala and Bombay are leading the way.
High Courts of Kerala and Bombay have started live streaming the hearings through the app called Zoom. The link to join the proceedings is made public on the cause list for the respective courtrooms.
The Kerala High Court, in particular, has issued a guide for advocates explaining how people can join the VC using the link.
However, apps such as Zoom have previously raised security concerns and cannot be trusted for important institutions like the judiciary in the long run. Instead, it is important for a robust mechanism to be in place which is specifically designed for the judiciary.
In Conclusion, it is to say that virtual court can be optional but not absolute. Indian judiciary is still not ready for virtual court; it has been imposed by the COVID19. Moreover, virtual court can be an option for urgent matter, like Bail & Stay but not recording of witnesses or entire proceedings. This may be the reason why the seven judges committee of Supreme Court issued SOP till 30 June only & taking the stock of situation will be decided further. One must remember that the revolution that is the virtual court system is because the outbreak of COVID19 & not preplanned execution; hence the courts are treating virtual court as an option not as absolute.The systemic reliance on VC is a significant step in the journey towards virtual courts. However, this cannot be done at the cost of the open courts principle, which is a cornerstone of Indian judiciary. The guidelines on VC may suffice as a short term solution, but in the long run, a more robust mechanism needs to be devised. The Supreme Court must, on a priority basis, work with multidisciplinary experts to ensure that technology infusion in the judiciary does not occur at the cost of inherent principles of justice. Our judiciary’s response to this pandemic, while commendable, is only the start of a long journey towards technology integration, which has to be done in a transparent and accountable manner.