COVID-19 has brought the world to a standstill. Economies are at an all-time low, and societies are restructuring themselves. The world is catching up to the new pace and new trends. The need for proper enforcement of law remains unchanged during these testing times. At these times, it is imperative to quote Francis Beacon, “If we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us”. To maintain justice during these times, the justice system of the world went online!
Virtual courts are the new location for delivering justice in a speedy manner. India is still a developing country. It has a long way to go in areas like technology and infrastructure.
India is adapting itself to the concept of virtual courts. The Supreme Court set up an e-committee with Justice D.Y. Chandrachud as its chairman. According to Justice Chandrachud, there must be no denial of justice due to the lockdown. Hence, the virtual courts are a beacon of hope not only in these unfortunate times but for the future as well.
The Honorable Supreme Court of India issued some guidelines on virtual courts. It provided for the effective implementation of the virtual courtrooms pan India. To sum it up, it vests the High Courts with some more responsibility. It has to ensure that the functioning of the virtual judiciary is smooth. The High Courts are to look after the District Courts. The High Courts have to provide good facilities for a virtual hearing to litigants who lack them. It is a welcome move by the judiciary. Various High Courts have also issued guidelines for the same.
Impediments for a Virtual Setup
India has a long way to go in the field of technology and its outreach. India has 687 million Internet users along with 627 active mobile internet users. Still, Internet Penetration stands only at 50% in 2020. This is one of the major hurdles India is facing the lack of Internet Penetration Pan India. The Supreme Court asks the High Courts to provide facilities to litigants who lack them. It is difficult for High Courts to achieve this goal, given the enormous pendency of cases in our country. Hence, this can be a setback for accessibility to justice.
Lack of awareness
Another important issue is the outreach of the idea that a virtual court exists in our country. Many people aren’t aware of this platform that can help them get access to justice by also keeping them safe. Although newspapers have been functioning online, it has affected print media industries. The print readership in India has increased by 4.4% as per a 2019 report. Newspapers form a significant source of information in our country. Their outreach is broader than other sources of information like television. Thus, there is a lack of awareness without newspapers.
Code of Conduct
Every profession has its own manner or code of conduct. This is essential to keep the profession noble and intact. During the lockdown, there have been many cases of lawyers not following the code of conduct. Moreover, the attitude of a few members of the legal community towards virtual courts has not been right. Also, it has invited much criticism. The virtual courts are functioning like regular courts. The only difference is that the proceedings are online. In one instance, Justice Sanjeev Prakash Sharma began his order with the note. He said that when the “learned counsel for the petitioner was contacted through video conferencing, he was found to be wearing Baniyan.”
There are various concerns about virtual courts. For instance, the credibility of witnesses, identity fraud and transparency of proceedings. All these factors affect virtual courts hearings. The article by Bar and Bench ‘Virtual Courts: A sustainable option?’ highlights all these aspects in a succinct manner. Apart from these issues, another issue is the manner of holding these proceedings. Due to which, it is difficult for virtual platforms to meet the intricacies of an open courtroom.
Overview of the Virtual Courts worldwide
Various countries chose to go online in this pandemic. They have done this to prevent injustice in the world during this time.
- Countries like Turkey, Germany, Ontario and Spain have started dispensing justice online. Remote Courts Worldwide, is a website that tracks the progress of various courts. It monitors their journey from offline to online.
- India is getting used to the idea of a virtual justice, but they will not replace the open court system. According to Justice DY Chandrachud, replacing open courts is not possible. He says that a blend of both virtual and open courts can lead to the efficient functioning of the judiciary.
- Ontario, Nigeria also released guidelines for the functioning of e-courts. Ontario also set up a committee to overlook the functioning of the Courts. India set up its e-filing module in May 2020.
- Many countries like Spain conducted their first criminal trial online. Texas conducted a jury trial with the help of Zoom App. The US Supreme Court collected evidence by telephone conference. Australian, New Zealand and Japanese courts chose Microsoft Teams for conducting virtual hearings.
- Bangladesh Courts decide to amend their laws to allow for video conferencing. Brazil allowed for virtual conciliation in small claims.
India’s position and Road Ahead
India too is at par with the world. Supreme Court Heard 593 Matters and Delivered Verdicts In 215 Cases During COVID-19 Lockdown. A welcome move is the launching of the e-filing module in May 2020 that allows for the filing of documents 24*7.
Yet, a challenge in the form of technology outreach is very evident. It might lead to a lack of accessibility for people who cannot afford it. India has a huge pendency of cases, and going virtual seems an efficient option. The costs involved have reduced. Carrying out all transactions of the Court online is the best option. The virtual courts face an evident roadblock. They have to overcome the technicalities and intricacies of being in an open court. For example, recording witness statements, providing evidence, and their validity seems questionable.
In future, virtual courts can undertake proceedings for other matters too. This involves small claims under Torts, Consumer Protection Act and Motor Vehicles Act. Another primary concern is the transparency of proceedings. This is ensured to the media under Article 19 of the Indian Constitution. Although there are certain impediments, there are benefits too. Virtual Courts ensure speedy justice, one of the principles of natural justice. With e-filing in the picture, the environment is also protected, as there is less use of paper. This is a step forward in the right direction.
The author recommends the following for better functioning of virtual courts:
- Privacy violation concerns are at peak with various video conferencing platforms available. A law for protecting individuals and their data is a must.
- India should also launch a project like the United Kingdom Transparency Project. This will ensure transparency in court proceedings and protects fundamental rights as well.
- But the transparency project covers only Family Court related matters. It is a good model and aims at creating a transparent virtual and judicious environment.
- India needs to work on its internet penetration. This is essential for the successful implementation of virtual courts across the country.
- The legal fraternity needs to be up to date with the technology and the virtual system. Conducting webinars for legal professionals for understanding the system would be beneficial.
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