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Are Virtual Courts Here To Stay?

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the nationwide lockdown has forced the Supreme Court and High Courts to resort to virtual court hearings. While a complete shut-down of the judiciary is undesirable, and that access to justice and judicial review is so fundamental that solutions have to be found, such a step is required to be taken, while also ensuring that free and fair trials are not disrupted.

Cases are being heard in full-swing at the Supreme Court. The Court has ensured that it has the necessary IT infrastructure in place to ensure smooth functioning of the court proceedings. Court hearings, through video-conferencing, so far, have been conducted seamlessly.

Use of Information Technology is the way forward. With technology being integrated in almost all aspects of our lives, it is only a matter of time before the courts adopt this for time to come. This will change the functioning of the courts, help deliver quick relief to litigants. Quick delivery, convenience, and paperless operation are key to improve the performance of court system in India.

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, the Supreme Court Advocates-on Record Association, the Supreme Court Bar Association and the Bar Council of India have been repeatedly expressing their concerns, stating that lawyers are uncomfortable with virtual hearings, and cannot effectively present their arguments. The ability to understand and communicate with the bench and retrieve information is another challenge to be addressed. It is being urged to resume physical court proceedings.

The quality of technology, of sound and picture, has to be good, so as to ensure minimal disruption and an uninterrupted flow. Smooth communication ensures better understanding of arguments which has a direct outcome on the case.

Accountability and transparency are also a factor to be taken into consideration. Unless proceedings are held in camera, court proceedings are to be conducted in front of the public. Giving access to the public of the live hearings is another factor that has to be taken into account.

Court procedures will undergo a radical change with the introduction of virtual courts post-COVID. Judges and lawyers will have to be trained in the new style of e-filings, proceedings and other aspects.

It seems unlikely that there will be a complete shift to a virtual court system. The integration should be a slow and gradual process, replacing court procedures in manageable chunks.
But virtual court hearings will not replace or be a substitute to physical courts, says Justice Chandrachud.

I want to dissuade people from the idea that virtual court hearings are some sort of a panacea. They will not be able to replace physical court hearings. We had to resort to virtual court hearings because Covid-19 descended without warning and we had no other choice.

It definitely involves a change in culture, shifting the status quo to an altogether new system.

The Supreme Court could opt for a combination of physical and virtual court system. This would enable the courts to take advantage of the best of both worlds saving costs, time and increasing efficiency, while also ensuring justice.

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