Today, the entire world is facing an unforeseen and improbable havoc that has wrecked the life of almost every individual, Covid -19. The perplexing situation created by the pandemic compelled almost every system to alter the mode of its functioning and resort to a virtual mode.
The pandemic paved way for a new concept of working in almost every sphere. The most defining concept introduced to the legal field is that of virtual court rooms. The principles of the functioning of Indian Courts remained unchanged for a century, but the pandemic urged the nation to resort to a newer concept of running the Courts online.
The precipitous outbreak of Covid-19 nationwide impelled the Supreme Court and the High Courts to hold virtual court hearings. Further, to ensure that free and fair trials are not interrupted, state-of-the art technology was built in courts to facilitate virtual hearings.
Through this article, the author has tried to discuss in detail the concept of virtual court rooms in India, the major challenges faced by the court, efficacy of this mode of hearing during the pandemic, and the scope of virtual court rooms post-pandemic.
Concept of Virtual Court Rooms in India
The Virtual Court System in India evolved under the E-Committee of the Supreme Court chaired by Justice D.Y.Chandrachud. In the wake of Covid-19 outbreak, the Supreme Court on 06th April, 2020, through a bench consisting of CJI S.A.Bobde, Justices D.Y.Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, issued a direction In Re : Guidelines for Court Functioning through Video Conferencing during Covid-19 Pandemic. The direction was issued regarding measures to be taken by the court to avoid physical presence of litigants within the court premises with an objective to continue justice delivery system. The Court issued the guidelines exercising its power under Article 142 of the Constitution, which confers unfettered power on the Supreme Court to pass orders in order to do complete justice. The Court broadly laid down following guidelines:
- The District Courts were directed to adopt the Virtual Court hearing procedure as laid down by the High Court. The courts were also directed to provide video conferencing facilities for litigants who lack resources.
- All High Courts must ensure functioning of the Courts through Video Conferencing.
- Until High Courts frame rules in this regard, Video Conferencing to be used for hearing arguments at Trial as well as Appellate stages.
Since the order, various judicial and quasi-judicial bodies in the country have been conducting hearings online via video conferencing. Though the video conferencing system in India is still not that effective in providing justice as compared to the traditional mode, it is constantly evolving and can prove to be a boon in adverse situations, like the ongoing pandemic and even post-pandemic.
Challenges faced by Virtual Court Rooms
Virtual Court Rooms prevented the wheels of justice from stopping completely, but could not prove to be that effective due to some of the challenges faced while conducting hearings online. The main reason behind inefficacy of virtual court rooms in India is the lack of digital literacy among people. It was observed that the litigants were not able to join online proceedings due to lack of resources, knowledge and inadequate training of Judges and the lawyers. Apart from this, the bandwith was found inadequate to reach e-courts, which affected smooth video conferencing.
Effectiveness of Virtual Court Rooms
There are some positive aspects of conducting court procedures virtually. One of the key advantages that such proceedings offer is reduction of environmental effect of litigation. The online court proceeding was initiated considering the Covid situation, but it also proved to be an environment friendly measure as it prevented people from travelling, thereby reducing pollution and travel expense. Further, the courts found that people with busy and non-flexible schedules could easily join the hearing from their workplace itself.
The inception of online functioning of the courts marked technological advancement and developments made in the field of legal fraternity and such technologies can be used by the courts in minimizing the pendency of litigation, speedy disposition of cases and in handling case lists effectively.
Post Pandemic scope of Virtual Court Rooms in India
The pace at which reforms were made in the judicial system due to the sudden outbreak of Covid-19 was unprecedented. Within just couple of weeks, Courts were made functional online. Although, at present India is not technologically advanced enough to afford this transition from offline to online mode as a substitute, it could still be used as an alternative in some critical situations. Further, with the advent of technology and improvements being made to it, it can definitely be used in future in some way or other to aid and ease the lengthy court proceedings.
Justice D.Y.Chandrachud, Chairman of the e-Committee at the Supreme Court said, “In future virtual court hearings would not substitute or replace physical courts and that the digitization of courts, including e-filing, must be standardized throughout nation. The submission of cases to the Supreme Court is expected to undergo a drastic shift with the launch of a new e-filing module in the near future[i].”
The detailed analysis and study of the virtual court rooms during this pandemic shows that justice can be delivered with the help of technology even during such crisis. The need for courts can never be overlooked. There are some flaws and technical glitches involved in such court rooms, which must be addressed for ensuring proper implementation of online court proceedings.
Virtual court rooms can also be opted in future i.e., after the pandemic. There are numerous advantages of opting for virtual court rooms. Though in a country like India, where only a few lawyers are acquaint with technologies and its usage in legal field, the effective implementation of technology in this field would indeed be a tedious task, still there are chances of improvement once it gets established. The virtual court rooms would not only help in speedy redrassal of the cases but also save expenses.
As technology is here to stay, finding a mechanism to make it better is the step in right direction. The first step towards addressing the challenges faced by virtual court rooms is drawing up a policy that encourages setting up of e-Courts in India. The Government must identify and develop the infrastructure that could support the e-Court project in India and make it simple and accessible, which would encourage litigants using such facilities.
[i] Murali Krishnan, Virtual Courts not a substitute to physical courts : Justice D.Y.Chandrachud, Hindustan Times, New Delhi, May 24, 2020.
The name of the author is Manshi Sinha, 2nd Year law student from Vivekanada Institute of Professional Studies, GGSIPU, New Delhi . She is a contributing author at The Blue Letters.