BCI, SCBA reply soughton virtual hearings’ plea
The Supreme Court on Monday sought the view of the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) on a petition filed by a group of lawyers demanding virtual court hearing as a matter of fundamental right
The Supreme Court on Monday sought the view of the Bar Council of India (BCI) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) on a petition filed by a group of lawyers demanding virtual court hearing as a matter of fundamental right.
Challenging the move by two high courts – Uttarakhand and Gujarat– for moving towards physical court hearings, the All-India Association of Jurists, claiming to be a body of 5,000 lawyers practising across the country along with a legal journalist urged the top court not to discontinue with the present system of virtual court hearing.
The Uttarakhand HC issued an administrative order on August 16 by which virtual court hearing was stopped. The Gujarat High Court issued a similar order on August 6 coming out with a standard operating procedure (SOP) for physical hearing of cases from August 17 with no mention about continuation of virtual court hearing.
Senior advocate Sidharth Luthra appearing for the Association said, “We are only saying that even if physical court commences, the hybrid mode of hearing (with virtual hearing) should continue. This is in the interest of litigants in getting access to justice, which is recognized to be a fundamental right.”
A three-judge bench led by Justice L Nageswara Rao, and comprising Justices B R Gavai and B V Nagarathna said, “The BCI and SCBA are impleaded as parties. We issue notice, and we will wait till their response and then we will hear the case.” The bench directed the matter to be heard after four weeks.
The bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao, BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna told Luthra that BCI chairman at a felicitation ceremony held for Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana on Saturday said that virtual hearing had severely affected the livelihood of lawyers.
The bench said, “We are hoping there should be normalcy. Should you still insist on this petition?” The bench pointed out that a physical court hearing experience not only benefits litigants but also helps young lawyers to learn. “We are missing eye to eye contact which makes arguments effective. Young lawyers also learn watching the seniors argue in Court,” said the bench.
SCBA president Vikas Singh, who was appearing in another matter, informed the court that SCBA was in favour of having physical hearing and will state so in an affidavit.
The petition made central government along with high courts of Uttarakhand, Gujarat, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh and Bombay High Court as parties in its petition.
Luthra cited the interim report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee submitted in September 2020 which highlighted that “affordable access to justice mandatorily demands that virtual courts must be made a permanent feature.” It further recommended that information and technology can be suitably used to fast-track cases by resorting to the technology of Video Conferencing, which will reduce the burden on courts, unnecessary crowding of Court premises and shall allow lawyers across the Country to appear in any court of the country.”
The bench underlined the difference between online courts and virtual courts, with the former referring to use of artificial intelligence for conducting court proceedings as compared to use of technological devices for conducting court hearing. “As regards artificial intelligence-based courts, we have made it clear that it cannot be practical for the present. Coming to virtual courts, the use of information technology tools has to be limited. You cannot say hybrid should continue,” the bench remarked.
The petition filed through advocate P Sriram cited Section 30 of the Advocates Act 1961 which entitles all lawyers registered on the rolls of the State Bar Council to practice before any Court, Tribunal or Commission of law across the Country. “This right and entitlement can be given full effect to only, when the option of virtual hearing is available along with the physical mode of hearing on the same terms and with the same level of alacrity by the administration of the various High Courts,” the petition said.
The bench said that for 70 years, litigants have enjoyed the right of access to justice. The issue in the present petition related to right of lawyers to practice their profession under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution. An application filed by a group of lawyers represented by advocate Pradeep Kumar Yadav opposed the petition claiming that they represented only 5000 when over five lakh lawyers in the country do not want virtual court hearing to continue. The bench refused to enter into the dispute and said that it was only seeking the opinion of BCI without passing any order.