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An Era of Virtual Courts: Should Online Courts be embraced even after the crisis ends?

At the beginning of the year 2020, news reports of a fast-spreading deadly virus, known by the name of COVID-19 (Novel Coronavirus), surfaced on the internet. It was believed that although it is contagious and is infecting hundreds at a time unless a person suffers from an underlying medical condition, it is harmless. Little did the world know that the virus will change the way of life as we know and millions will be trapped in their own homes for months to come. The Indian government, in order to control and contain the virus, took matters in their own hands and immediately imposed a nationwide lockdown in late March this year. Initial few months saw a steady and gradual spread of the virus in India, however, this changed in mid of May as the country became 4th nation[i] worldwide to have developed the highest number of COVID-19 cases.


The pandemic disrupted almost every sector of the society and the Indian Judiciary was one of them. Since the imposition of nationwide lockdown, all the Courts were shut down and the Supreme Court introduced the guidelines for the virtual hearing of the cases via video conferencing limited to only urgent matters at hand. The guidelines further directed the legal fraternity to implement and follow the social distancing measures strictly. This was done to ensure that the justice delivering institutions remain open and available to the general public even during the wake of a global crisis, as a right to seek justice is a fundamental right of every person.[ii]


ONLINE COURT SYSTEM

The benefits of the online court system are innumerable as it saves litigants and counsel’s time, money, and energy to ensure their presence in the courtrooms. In the ordinary working of the apex court, before the pandemic, only the parties and advocates certified by the Advocate on record were allowed to attend the Open Court proceedings. Presently, under the online court system, the parties and the senior advocates are permitted to join the virtual hearing from remote places through the video conferencing links provided to them. The virtual hearings take place smoothly and quite effectively where the litigants and advocates involved can see, hear and reply to the opposite party and the court simultaneously, during the length of proceedings of the online courts. The decision to grant the common public the access to justice system by making the court proceedings available to everyone through live-streaming is commendable. Our Judiciary in doing so, has successfully managed to sustain the basic principle of the justice system, that is, justice must not only be done but also seen to be done.


However, many raised objections to the practice of hearing cases through video conferencing stating that it is not feasible and practical due to a lack of internet facilities and connectivity issues in most states of the nation. It was further contended that though these measures are laudable, they are insufficient in the current time. This is because of the reasons listed below:


1. The virtual system of the court proceedings is yet to be adopted and implemented as per the directions of the apex court by all judicial and quasi-judicial bodies throughout the nation.


2. The institutions that have adopted the online court system are using it to dispose of only selected matters, which are urgent and regular at a standstill.


3. Due to the uncertainty of the current pandemic and the social distancing norms, it is difficult to say for how long the courts can do away with disposing only the urgent matters and overlooking the other regular pending court matters.


The virtual court hearings and the traditional judicial process are not, however, antithetical to each other as is being objected by various members of the legal fraternity. The apex court in taking up matters for an online hearing has reiterated this fact by saying that both these systems can coexist. There already exists a huge backlog of cases in the India Courts (Supreme Court alone has more than 60,000 pending cases as on 1st Jun 2020)[iii] and stopping the process of the virtual hearing will only increase this backlog and add pressure on the Indian Judiciary. The virtual hearings have not just proved to be beneficial in the time of the present crisis but can also be embraced for a longer duration after the current threat subsides. As it is quite visible from the measures undertaken during Covid-19, it is clear that these are not just adopted temporarily but are here to stay, as also observed by Chief Justice of India.[iv]


PAST ATTEMPTS

Many past attempts to make e-courts a reality[v] have been initiated by the Parliament but without any success so far. The present crisis can be used as a way to take the virtual courts forward and make it an integral part of the normal courtroom proceedings after the pandemic is over. This will help not only in providing a speedy, fast-track, and less expensive judicial remedies but will also help in clearing the backlog and easing the burden on the Indian Courts. The courts can surely use a breather in the form of disposing of the traffic ticket matters and other small matters through video conferencing after the end of the pandemic which will save the parties, litigants, and the magistrate time and energy.


The saying, “never waste a good crisis” has presented the Indian Judiciary with a golden opportunity to alter the basic functioning of the court procedures as the online hearing illustrates that the courts are not a venue but a public service.


ENDNOTES

[i] WHO Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Dashboard ( visited on 26/05/20)


[ii] Art 14, 21 Constitution of India, 1950


[iii] Supreme Court of India, Statistics (https://main.sci.gov.in/)


[iv] NEWS, I. Combination of virtual, physical courts will be way forward: CJI | India News - Times of India


[v] E-Courts Mission Mode Project



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

This blog has been authored by Purnima Sharma who is a 4th Year B.A., LL.B. (Hons.) student at Himachal Pradesh National Law University, Shimla.


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