While the lawyers community across the country, their legal bodies, litigants and other stakeholders are eagerly and endlessly waiting to resume their normal work after re-opening of physical courts-which are closed since March 23, 2020 in view of the COVID-19 pandemic giving way to restricted hearings of urgent matters through video conferencing- the Government is making a strong pitch to establish a permanent high-tech virtual court system for justice delivery in the country to replace conventional system of hearings in physical courts.
In its Interim Report titled ‘Functioning of the Virtual Courts/Court Proceedings through Video Conferencing’ submitted to Rajya Sabha chairperson M. Venkaiah Naidu, the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law & Justice, has recommended continuation of virtual courts post pandemic, saying, ‘it will pave way for cheaper and faster means of delivery of justice as court is more a service than a place’.
The recommendation, made in September last September, has been stirring hot debate on the pros and cons of a virtual court system among the members of legal fraternity and proposers. Staunch advocates of the digital justice system, including panel head and BJP lawmaker Bhupendra Yadav, argue that virtual courts can deliver faster results with fewer resources, will cut down the cost and increase efficiency in disposal of the cases without being unnecessarily being adjourned, will reduce commute time to courts and waiting time at the courts, will address locational and economic handicaps and ensure safety of vulnerable witnesses providing testimony besides expediting processes and procedures, among other advantages.
Yadav referred to virtual courts in countries like US and Singapore and said they have also done a lot of work on aspects like the conduct of remand matters virtually to prevent the movement of prisoners between courts and jails. “We have effectively used virtual courts during the lockdown period wherein more than 1.8 million cases were registered across the country, of which nearly 800,000 have been disposed of”, the committee argued.
The Committee is of the view that all such matters where personal presence may be dispensed with can be transferred from regular Court establishments to Virtual Courts. “Virtual adjudication will bring massive benefits across the system,” the committee said.
The panel has rightly recommended setting up of E-Sewa Kendras in all court complexes to facilitate e-filing of cases, introduction of computer course in three and five-year law courses, developing an indigenous software platform to ensure data privacy and safety, providing WAN (Wide Area Network) facility to all, adoption of machine learning, artificial intelligence and block chain technology, among others, for a transformational change in the justice delivery system. Nevertheless, all these measures may deliver perfectly in long run for compatibility and feasibility of virtual courts but, as of now, physical courts seem to be an essence of the justice dispensation system of India.
Various Bar Councils have questioned the efficacy of the digital proceedings in a scenario where over 50% of advocates, mostly at district and lower levels, do not own laptops or computers and lack skill required for virtual proceedings. Critics of virtual courts further argue that an advocate gets to understand the mood of the judges and stands a better chance at convincing them during physical hearings while online hearing creates a psychological pressure on both advocates as well the judges. They said that an evidence recorded by way of video conferencing may distort non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, postures and gestures. Besides, though the proponents have firmly resolved to sort out connectivity issues with the help of Communication and Information Technology Ministry through National Broadband Mission, there is every possibility that the problem will take months or years to get fully rectified in far-flung, hilly and difficult areas.
(To be continued)