The outbreak of Covid-19 has brought the world to its knees and the Indian
judiciary is also facing its brunt. Courts are closing their doors and limiting
their dockets. The Supreme Court responded to the call of social distancing by
issuing guidelines for courts to switch to video conferencing in these
unprecedented times. This cannot be seen as a temporary issue. Technology is
here to stay,
said Chief Justice Bobde.
The bench comprising CJ. Bobde, J. DY Chandrachud (Chairman of Supreme Court
E-committee) and J. L. Nageswara Rao exercised its plenary power under Article
142 of the Constitution. It said all measures that shall be taken by court to
reduce physical presence shall be deemed to be lawful.”
The apex court
also asked to direct district courts to follow the videoconferencing rules as
formulated by their respective high courts.
Access to justice is fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy
envisaged by the Constitution of India. The challenges occasioned by the
outbreak of COVID-19 have to be addressed while preserving the constitutional
commitment to ensuring the delivery of and access to justice to those who seek
it, the bench observed.
The video conferencing has been limited to hearing of ‘extremely urgent
matters’ both at trial stage or appellate stage and no recording of evidence
can be done without mutual consent of both the parties.
The question however is, what are extremely urgent matters?
The apparent cases that are being taken up by the courts explain what matters of
extreme urgency are. These largely include Covid-19 cases relating to personal
protection equipment for doctors and medical staff, deployment of security
personnel, frees testing, movement of migrant workers and protection of victims
of Delhi riots. The second kind of cases involves bail applications most of
which notably are seeking social distancing or better facilities in prisons.
The Delhi High Court has extended the liberty to undertrial prisoners to apply
for interim bail. The Rajasthan High Court was of the view that bail matters are
not matter of extreme urgency but such a view was stayed by the Supreme Court.
Thirdly, commercial matters restricted to the pandemic are being heard. Thus, it
can be concluded that the extremely urgent matters are largely offshoot of
In these intervening times, relaxation is being given to justice seekers in the
litigation process. The Delhi and Bombay High Court had earlier issued
notification for extension of interim orders except in cases of extreme urgency.
The Supreme Court has extended the limitation timeline with effect from
15th March 2020 until further orders. This includes limitation for petitions,
applications, suits, appeals and all other proceedings under the general or
special law both under central and/ or state legislations. Relief measures were
announced by our Finance Minister on 24th March 2020 regarding compliances with
taxation, banking, IBC, etc.
The silver lining in the time of crisis
Desperate times call for desperate measures and the coronavirus has pushed our
judiciary to adapt itself to the changing world. Interestingly, this could pave
our way to a more advanced judicial system incorporating electronic means in its
dispensation of justice. The High Courts in India have pendency of over 40 lakhs. If
technology is adopted, it may become a permanent fixture and would reduce the
pendency of cases.
The first e-court in India was established in New Delhi which has brought about
a tremendous savings not only for the State exchequer with reference to under
trials but also to litigating public who otherwise could not afford loss of
time, work and money. However, it is not a virtual court but a real court where
only use of paper is dispensed with. India has no virtual courts yet i.e. courts
where arguments are heard online without a tangible courtroom.
Videoconferencing helps save time, money and energy especially in remand cases
where the convict need not come from the jail and cases are heard online.
However, it is time to go beyond that. Adopting technology would greatly reduce
unnecessary adjournment of cases where the lawyer is unable to present himself
in the court. It is also a cost effective measure because various stakeholders
would not be required to travel long distances and witnesses could be examined
Such a reform in the judiciary calls for cooperation from the legal fraternity.
In my opinion, demeanor may be compromised in a virtual court but that alone
should not be a reason to disregard such a development. Hearings in real courts
are very protracted and time restraint would be a major concern for virtual
This undoubtedly demands a cultural shift in how proceedings should take place
taking example from the American courts. Judges should have a flavor of the case
beforehand and lawyers must be concise and articulate in their arguments so as
to save time of the court. E-filing could potentially improve the standard of
written submissions and ensure strict adherence to time limit during oral
arguments. Other methods of de-clogging of courts could be adopted.
The world is living through a challenging time but the silver lining is that it
could boost judicial reforms which were sluggish until now. This could possibly
tout a revolution in court management and speed up India’s quest for improving
its rank in World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index. Indian courts should
become proactive in embracing the advancements of technology in judicial
proceedings. It would patently ensure transparency in courts and be remarkably
effective for the overall development of the justice system.