Heralding a new era: Application of virtual hearings in District Court
Author Name: SHIVAM BHATTACHARYA
College Name: GUJARAT NATIONAL LAW UNIVERSITY
The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has put the focus on creating a next-generation judicial system based on the aspect of conducting the court proceedings through virtual hearings in order for the judicial fraternity to remain accessible to the public at all times. The District Courts across the country have started to adopt the modes of virtual hearings as mentioned by their respective High Courts. Conducting virtual hearings of cases in the District Courts will play a major role in the digitization of the courts, serving as a perfect remedy to reduce the huge backlog of cases present in the District Courts. With the initiative taken by the Supreme Court of India on the court proceedings being done through video conferencing so that there is an uninterrupted functioning of the judicial system, the District Courts of a number of states have started to hear cases through online methods.
This article aims to critically analyze the implications of conducting hearings online in the District Courts of the country and examines the pros and cons of doing so with the aim of coming to a feasible solution benefitting both the public and the judicial fraternity. This article will also provide a varied view on the application of virtual hearings in the District Courts of the country; by taking into account all the problems and challenges which may occur in the process and suggesting innovative ways to tackle these issues. A brief part of the article will also analyze whether conducting court proceedings through virtual means will kick-start the process of digitizing the Judicial system of the District Courts.
SC order on virtual hearings:
The Supreme Court’s seven page order on the 6th of April directing the use of videoconferencing technologies for urgent matters under the ambit of Article 142 of the Indian Constitution has served as a perfect platform to accelerate the pace at which technology can be adopted by the courts of our country. In the aforementioned order by the Supreme Court, the District Courts across the country have been directed to move to virtual means to carry out the court proceedings based on the modalities prescribed by their respective High Courts.
Virtual hearings: Golden opportunity for the District Courts
The unprecedented crisis has given the District Courts across the country the opportunity to utilize the rapid advancement in communication technologies to make a justice delivery system which is able to work even during a crisis. A new working environment based on the delivery of justice through virtual hearings can be a game-changer for the District Courts. Virtual hearings would do away with the need for unnecessary travel and money and more importantly bring greater professionalism into the mechanism of justice delivery in the District Courts.
In addition to that, the Supreme Court has also rightly pointed out in the landmark case of M/S Meters and Instruments v. Kanchan Mehta that,
“Use of modern technology must be considered not only for paperless courts but also to reduce overcrowding of courts.”
Moreover, enabling virtual hearings in the District Courts will lead to the digitization of the District Court system in turn greatly reducing the backlog of cases and will open new avenues for providing justice in a time-bound and smooth manner. The District Courts of various states have risen to the occasion in order to remain accessible to the public in the present situation. The lockdown has prepared the District Courts for a new working environment based on the organization and the automation of the court proceedings.
Advantages of going virtual:
The concept of courts moving to virtual means had gained traction in recent years with the advancement in audio-visual technologies; however, the current pandemic has accelerated the process. A need was felt in the legal fraternity that the courts should be present to the public at all times for the administration of justice.
As has been rightly pointed by the Honorable Supreme Court that,
“The advantages of the virtual system of courts, in terms of time, energy and money saved by the litigants and counsels in ensuring their presence before a court is innumerable and could be game-changers too.”
With the District Courts going online, the pendency of cases is getting reduced, reforms are being fast-tracked, and more importantly, courts are being accessible to the general public. For the legal professionals in the District Courts, ‘work from home’ has become the new normal. The present procedure of the lawyers sending their request for videoconferencing along with providing all the necessary documents has instilled a sense of belief in the minds of the legal professionals as well as the general public that the court proceedings in the District Courts would be held fairly without compromising with the quality of justice provided.
The Supreme Court and the High Courts of several states have made the facility of e-filing accessible to everyone and some of the District Courts have taken a cue from that and started adopting the facility. The filing process is followed by the registration of the pleadings with the arguments. The pleadings submitted are then cross-examined though video-conferencing and based on written submissions the Judges pass the order, which is then electronically communicated to the concerned parties. In some cases, the Judges also pass speaking orders which are then transmitted and published online.
The application of virtual means in the District Courts has brought about huge and bold changes to the legal proceedings. It has led to the court proceedings being based mainly on the art of structured pleadings, supported by strategically crafted written submissions, instead of the oral part. It has also led to effective disposal of pending cases and a reduction in the demand for physical infrastructure for the functioning of the courts.
With a number of cases getting decided through virtual hearings, it has been clearly demonstrated by the District Courts that they well-equipped to act decisively in such challenging times. The District Courts have shown that the challenge brought forth by the ‘coronavirus pandemic’ can be best countered by the adoption of virtual hearings based on brief written submissions. A tectonic shift has been brought about in the judicial system of the District Courts.
Challenges and the way forward:
Despite the innumerable benefits arising out of virtual hearings of cases, some key challenges remain which needs to be tackled. Accessibility to the delivery of justice in the District Courts has been a challenge which needs to be met. A series of challenges including poor network connectivity, frequent power cuts, bandwidth issues, establishing the authenticity of the identity of the witnesses, multiple cyber-security issues and poor audio-visual technology needs to be resolved.
It is also suggested that some specific matters like those involving a single employee, bail petitions, matrimonial issues can be heard compulsorily via virtual hearings. A niche area of law like Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) should be implemented in its full sense. Also, the entire process of the digitization of the District Courts through virtual hearings has to be secured from any unnecessary interference from the outside by keeping a holistic view of the need for public access to the court proceedings.
All of these challenges have to be tackled by keeping in mind the interests of the legal professionals and the public alike. The need to ensuring a smooth and efficient system of justice and at the same time not to comprise with the quality of the justice-delivery will be a key challenge in the days to come.
Virtual hearings will lead to a paradigm shift in the judiciary system of the District Courts and the changes brought about will streamline a quick, effective and new system for the disposal of cases. For this the optimal utilization of audio-visual technologies and enhancing the participation of the people would determine the way forward. Virtual hearings will also provide the courts with an opportunity to implement the technology available for improving the procedural and the substantive aspects of the legal process.
Conducting the court proceedings in the District Courts via virtual hearings will enable a wide section of the public to participate in the legal procedure, much more than the limited confines of a courtroom allows.
The District Courts in India with its huge pendency of cases and with people lacking judicial access is critically placed and thus, the adoption of technology will play a major role in its aim to fast-track cases and decongesting the court premises. The District Courts of our country need to be incentivized to adopt virtual hearings as the way forward which is only possible by reinventing the judiciary at the district level through the means of technology.