OBITER DICTA

Covid-19 crisis forces courts to go hi-tech

The pandemic has once again proved that every dark cloud has a silver lining

Covid-19 crisis forces courts to go hi-tech

Satya Prakash

Hesitant to implement its own order on live-streaming court proceedings, the Supreme Court has finally been forced to go hi-tech, thanks to the crisis created by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

March 27, 2020, will be remembered as a landmark in the history of Indian judiciary when three Benches of the Supreme Court for the first time heard urgent matters via video-conferencing. Both judges and lawyers took part in the proceedings with the help of ‘Vidyo’ app sitting at their respective homes.

For judges who rarely use the public address system during courts proceedings, it’s a huge decision to face a sort of public scrutiny via live-streaming, even though it’s available only to a limited audience on the Supreme Court premises.

It’s a bold step for an institution which generally felt comfortable in an opaque environment and resisted implementation of the RTI by contesting verdicts delivered against it by the Central Information Commission and the Delhi High Court.

A three-judge Bench headed by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra had on September 26 allowed a PIL seeking live-streaming of the court’s proceedings in important constitutional matters.

The project must be implemented in a progressive, structured and phased manner with certain safeguards to ensure that the purpose of live-streaming of proceedings was achieved holistically, it had said, adding to begin with only important cases would be live-streamed as suggested under the guidelines submitted by Attorney General KK Venugopal.

“The project of live-streaming of the court proceedings of the Supreme Court on the Internet and/or on radio and TV through live audio-visual broadcasting/telecasting universally by an official agency, such as Doordarshan, having exclusive telecasting rights and/or official website/mobile application of the court, must be implemented in a progressive, structured and phased manner…,” the top court had said.

However, it had said it should be done with certain safeguards to ensure that the purpose of live-streaming of proceedings was achieved holistically and that it did not interfere with the administration of justice or the dignity and majesty of the court hearing the matter and/or impinge upon any rights of the litigants or witnesses.

But 18 months on, the order is yet to see the light of the day. On February 4, a Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra refused to pass any order on the issue, saying it would be appropriate for the Chief Justice of India to deal with the matter as the administrative head of the institution.

Last week, former RSS ideologue KN Gonvindacharya once again moved the Supreme Court seeking live-streaming of proceedings in view of outbreak of Covid, saying judges, advocates and litigants were at a great risk of communicable diseases due to their increased public interaction. “The pandemic presents an opportunity to embrace technology in the justice system,” submitted Govindacharya, who had earlier filed a petition for live-streaming of the Ayodhya case proceedings.

It’s not that the judiciary is not using information technology to enhance its efficiency and to tackle pendency. Way back in 2005, the e-courts programme was launched to digitise judicial proceedings. In October 2006, the Supreme Court introduced the system of e-filing of petitions. But the e-filing project could not take off properly as only a negligible number of litigants and lawyers used it.

As a part of the on-going e-Courts Integrated Mission Mode Project, ‘The National Judicial Data Grid/ (NJDG) was launched in 2015 as a monitoring tool to identify, manage and reduce pendency of cases by tracking judicial performance across different courts in India.

In May 2017, the then CJI JS Khehar had announced that the Supreme Court Registry would start functioning as a digital court from first week of July of that year. “It will be a manipulation-free system which would work to the benefit lawyers and litigants alike and would make things easier for judges as well,” Justice Khehar had announced. Almost three years after the announcement, bulk of the filings continues to be done in paper mode.

Apart from these obvious benefits, there is a far more serious issue involved. As an institution, the Indian judiciary lacks a sense of history and a desire to preserve its precious moments for posterity. In recent years, India lost best of its legal minds, including Ram Jethmalani and Anil B Divan whose skills could have preserved in video form for future generation of lawyers and judges for learning.

As a nation, we could have captured the historic moments when landmark verdicts that changed the course of history of India were pronounced by judges such as Justice Jagmohanlal Sinha who set aside Indira Gandhi’s election in June 1975. Live-streaming of court proceedings — when fully implemented — can usher in a new era of judicial transparency in India.

Adopting technology requires more than just a change in the mindset of judges. Covid-19 has once again proved that every dark cloud has a silver lining.

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