Courts to conduct hearings through video calls, says SC
The Supreme Court on Monday issued a slew of directions to courts across the country to facilitate hearing of cases through video conferencing, a step which it said was essential to ensure that court premises do not contribute to the spread of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19).
A three-judge bench, headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI), SA Bobde, said that hearings in congregation must become an exception during the lockdown period and taking steps towards that end is a matter of duty and not an exception.
“Until appropriate rules are framed by the high courts, video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage”, the top court ordered in a suo motu (on its own) case registered by it based on a letter written by senior advocate Vikas Singh.
Singh, in his letter, had suggested modalities to reduce person to person contact and the gathering of advocates inside the Supreme Court.
The bench, which also comprised justices DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao, said that in view of the unprecedented and extraordinary outbreak of a pandemic, it is necessary for courts to respond to the call for social distancing and ensure that court premises do not contribute to the spread of Covid-19.
“The Supreme Court of India and all high courts are authorized to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technologies”, the court stated in its order passed under Article 142 of the Constitution.
Article 142 of the Constitution empowers the top court to pass orders to do complete justice in cases before it.
The Supreme Court, under complete shutdown due to the outbreak of the pandemic, has been hearing only extremely urgent cases since March 25 via video conferencing without the personal presence of lawyers. Any examples of cases heard?
The apex court said on Monday that the high court in each state would be at liberty to work out the modalities for the use of video conferencing after taking into account the peculiarities of the judicial system in the state concerned and the public health situation in that state.
The district courts which fall under the administrative supervision of high courts will have to adopt the mode of video conferencing prescribed by the high court in question, the top court ordered.
Video conferencing, the court said, should be mainly employed for hearing arguments. When it comes to examination of witnesses and recording of evidence, consent of both parties should be obtained before using video conferencing to do the same.
“If it is necessary to record evidence in a court room, the presiding officer shall ensure that appropriate distance is maintained between any two individuals in the court”, the court ordered.
The court concerned should also maintain a helpline to ensure that any complaint with regard to the quality or audibility of the feed is communicated during the proceeding or immediately after its conclusion.
No such grievance, the court said, will be entertained at a later stage.
The court also took into account the concerns of those litigants who do not have the means or access to video conferencing facilities. In such cases, the court will have to notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants.
“If necessary, in appropriate cases, courts may appoint an amicus-curiae and make video conferencing facilities available to such an advocate,” the apex court added.
Further, the presiding officer of a court will have the power to restrict entry of persons into the court room or the points from which the arguments are addressed by the advocates. However, no presiding officer shall prevent the entry of a party to the case unless such party is suffering from any infectious illness.
“..where the number of litigants are many the presiding officer shall have the power to restrict the numbers. The presiding officer shall in his discretion adjourn the proceedings where it is not possible to restrict the number,” the court clarified.
The top court also asked the Department of Justice and National Informatics Centre (NIC) to take note of the problems which the apex court had faced on April 3, when there was a problem with internet connectivity during the hearing of a case through video conferencing.
The Director General of NIC, who was present for the hearing, told the bench that three things are required for video conferencing: good broadband connection; good devices; and observance of social etiquette and conduct of people, where if one person is speaking, others must put their devices on mute.
Attorney General KK Venugopal said the NIC must look into the aspect as to which is the most efficient and cheap application that could be used for video conferencing by all lawyers across the country.
The apex court adjourned the matter for four weeks stating that the directions issued by it will remain in force until further orders are passed.
“This cannot be seen as a temporary issue. Technology is here to stay”, CJI Bobde remarked.
[With PTI Inputs]