The Supreme court on Monday described the new system of video conferencing as ‘extremely successful’ during the current pandemic situation. The top court granted liberty to the high courts to frame rules accordingly for such virtual hearings for themselves as well as the subordinate courts.
Attorney General K K Venugopal also raised the matter of live-streaming of the proceedings, a practice which has been adopted by the Madras High court. To this, the apex court said it would think later about the same.
Video Conferencing System
On April 6, Supreme Court, after taking suo motu cognizance of a letter which was written by the former Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president and senior lawyer, Vikas Singh, issued an order guiding how to use technology for conducting hearings in courts across the country to avoid congregation due to the “extraordinary” outbreak of Covid-19.
The bench of Chief Justice S A Bobde and Justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao on Monday said:
We must say that the system of video-conferencing has been extremely successful in providing access to justice.
The bench also said,
Directions issued earlier must not change except the one related to the power of the high courts to decide on the course of virtual hearings.
We propose the substitute sub-para (vii) of Paragraph 6 with the following: The video conferencing in every High Court and within the jurisdiction of every High Court shall be conducted according to the Rules for the purpose framed by the High Court.
The bench added,
The Rules will govern Video conferencing in the High Court and in the district courts shall cover appellate proceedings as well as trails. We are given to understand that several High Courts have framed their rules already. Those High Courts have not framed such Rules shall do so having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the state.
Till such Rules are framed, the High Courts may adopt the model Video Conferencing Rules provided by the e-committee, Supreme Court of India.
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Supreme court emphasised that the new practice had been adapted to overcome the challenges resulting due to the pandemic, and that the directions were primarily issued in “furtherance of the commitment of the delivery of justice.”
The bench noted,
There has been a change in the situation since April 2020. In many states, the situation has eased and it has been possible to even commence hearings in congregation.
Venugopal urged Justice Chandrachud, who is leading the e-committee, to take the necessary steps for the “glitches” coming in the functioning of the facility in the apex court. He also said that all the other things are working very well in the system of video-conferencing.
While addressing the issue, Justice Chandrachud said that a team has been formed to authorise an individual to take care of the complete video-conferencing facility of the apex court. And as for the high courts and trial courts, a national tender would be released to ensure there will be a common virtual hearing platform.
Talking about their current platform, Justice Chandrachud said,
Right now, every high court is either on Zoom or Cisco or Vidyo.
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The bench mentioned,
Once we are doing that on a pan-India basis, some degree of financial help will be needed from the Centre. We have appointed a committee of four high court judges. That committee has formulated rules for the video-conferencing, which was circulated to all the high courts, and the suggestions have been incorporated and the model rules formulated. Eleven high courts have adopted the model rules.
The bench while granting the freedom to the high courts of deciding as to what kind of video-conferencing facilities they would like to use, also mentioned that there is an issue of “e-literacy”. Furthermore, some matters related to the types of network available in a particular state were also raised, which should be taken into consideration.
Directing Venugopal to consult government officials and help the e-committee, the bench said,
We would like the Centre to give us access to the optical fibre network. Earlier, we wanted the Centre to give us the satellite but later, was advised against it and now, we seek access to the optical fibre network. We have an eye on the e-filing of cases.
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Mentioning Reliance Jio as the “best optical fibre network” and also not an expensive one, Senior advocate Harish Salve asked the court to prefer it. The bench told Salve that the company can formally meet the e-committee of the apex court in this regard.
To improvise the functioning and facilities at the apex court, a committee comprising of some apex court judges, the attorney general and the solicitor general would be formed, said the bench.
Live Streaming by Madras High Court
Praising the execution by Madras High court, Venugopal urged live-streaming of the apex court’s proceedings as well. However, the top court stated that there are many issues that they cannot discuss publicly and would think over the matter later.
Opposing the functioning of live streaming, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that this would lead to people filing petitions just for the sake of “being heard all across the country.”
The bench concluded that a physical court hearing in the current situation must become an “exception” during the “extraordinary outbreak” of the Covid-19 pandemic. It also mentioned that it is important that all the courts should respect the measures taken to prevent the spread of Covid-19 virus.
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