Many witnesses said that the virtual court hearings, especially during peak hours when many people log into the video-conferencing system, was subject to frequent crashes of the system and said entire proceedings can be vitiated by one glitch.
Representatives of various Bars opine that virtual courts ‘threaten the constitutionality of Court proceedings and undermine the importance of Rule of law which forms a part of the basic structure of the Constitution.’ Expressing concern over the opaqueness of such hearings, they stated that virtual courts are antithetical to the open court system given the limited access, that they allow for.
They quoted the case reference of NareshShridharMirajkar and Ors. v. State of Maharashtra and Ors, where the Supreme Court had stated “Public trial in open Court is undoubtedly essential for the healthy, objective and fair administration of justice. Trial held subject to the public scrutiny and gaze naturally acts as a check against judicial caprice or vagaries and serves as a powerful instrument for creating confidence of the public in the fairness, objectivity, and impartiality of the administration of justice.”
Raising serious concerns, some critics asserted that the dispensation of justice is a human endeavour made up of laws, ethics, morality, wisdom and compassion, absence of any one these five ingredients, short-changed by restrictive virtual situations, would render the exercise of justice only partially satisfactory or even downright unjust.
Pertinently, the panel’s recommendations have come at a time when hearing of cases are taking place via video conferencing throughout the country when physical hearings of cases in Supreme Court were suspended on March 23 in view of the pandemic. The top court had issued a circular on March 23, suspending entry of lawyers and litigants to the court premises and directed that only urgent cases will be taken up for hearing through video conferencing. On 6 April, a bench headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde issued orders under Article 142 of the Constitution to allow all courts to switch over the virtual mode, giving legal sanctity to digital courts.
According to an estimate, the Apex Court has conducted virtual hearing of over 50 thousand cases so far since March last year, when physical hearings were closed-registering an increase of 13 thousand cases. However, these constituted only urgent cases of criminal and civil nature while ordinary cases were not taken up during the pandemic. Currently there are 30 million pending cases in the country. So far VC facilities are operational only between 3,240 court complexes and corresponding 1,272 prisons while 14,443 courts still don’t have such digital facility to conduct remand matters to prevent movement of prisoners between courts and jails, which suggest that a lot more is required to be done for full-fledged digital system.
Furthermore, only 13 out of the 25 high courts in the country have introduced and enabled electronic filing of cases. But the district and subordinate courts at many places have been lagging behind due to lack of infrastructure and experience in handling and transitioning to virtual hearings. Therefore, virtual system is not, at least for the time being, compatible and feasible for subordinate judiciary of the country as they are accustomed and comfortable only in the traditional physical court system.
To recapitulate, in a developing country like India where illiteracy, lack of awareness and rigid social customs and practices variably prevail amongst a large section of common masses, physical courts are quintessential for justice delivery system. Virtual courts may be viable partially for higher echelons of judiciary like the Apex Court and the High Courts, but not, at all, practical and feasible in the subordinate judiciary as of now. Presently, the lawyers and litigants are suffering a lot due to non-opening of physical courts for the last over nine months as a majority of advocates, except senior and designated lawyers, are struggling to survive while the litigants are not able to get justice as pendency of ordinary cases continues to pile up day by day, adding to the woes of justice-seekers.
Unfortunately, despite lawyers’ token strikes, appeals and hunger strikes for reopening of physical courts, there seems to be no headway as the present arrangement of restricted and virtual hearings is being extended month after month, invariably, with no sign of hope visible for resumption of normal working in the courts.