pri Should Virtual Hearing in Courts be limited to advocates aged over 65 years? Should Virtual Hearing in Courts be limited to advocates aged over 65 years?

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has issued an advisory that people above 65 years should strictly remain at home and not move out as they are at a greater risk of getting infected during the Covid Pandemic. Abiding by the said advisory, the senior citizens above the age of 65 are voluntarily not moving out from their homes.

During the strictest Lockdown, the emergency services like the Hospitals & Courts were not closed down because  medical treatment at the time of health crisis and redressal from Courts in times of exigency are adjunct to the Right to Life enshrined in our Constitution. Accordingly, the Apex Court & the High Courts started hearing of very urgent matters virtually through video conferencing. Although the number of cases being heard in the said Courts  were limited as compared to normal times, but a lot of urgent matters were disposed off through detailed virtual hearing. The need of the hour ably aided by the new technologies made the said exercise possible to meet the ends of justice and to see that our rights as guaranteed by the various Articles of the Constitution are not infringed.

The Allahabad High Court has recently in some cases  declined  the request of the lawyers to argue their matters  via video conferencing, stating that the facility is available only for only for advocates  aged above 65 years as per the advisory of the High Court. Recently, a vacation bench rejected such  request of an advocate in a criminal writ petition. The order of the bench is reproduced as under:

“It has been informed by the Office that learned counsel for the petitioner Ms. Swati Agrawal Srivastva by means of an application through e-mail has made a request for providing web link to her to argue the matter through video conferencing.

From the said application, it does not transpires whether she qualifies the advisory issued by this Court for the Advocates for getting the web link to argue the matter through video conferencing or not, hence the said application is hereby rejected.”

However the advisory/guidelines issued on May 30 by the Allahabad High court stated  that the High Court will “function as usual” from June 8 onwards and it stipulated that lawyers above 65 yrs of age will not be permitted to attend the court physically and they may argue through video conferencing. This was done for the safety of the advocates as per the advisory of the MHA. It is worthwhile to refer to the guidelines of the High Court which are reproduced as under:

“The Learned Advocates aged 65 years or more may appear and argue the cases through video-conferencing as they would not be allowed to enter in the High Court as per the applicable protocol for lock-down”

On the basis of the aforesaid guideline the High Court in another order dated June 17, 2020, rejecting the application for hearing through video conferencing in a criminal miscellaneous writ petition also passed a similar order.

It is pertinent that the guidelines to restrain the advocates over the age of 65 years,  does not in my opinion and with due respect to the opinion expressed by their Lordships, nowhere states that hearing via Video Conferencing will be available “only” to Advocates above 65 years of age. Rather, the annexure to the Circular for “Arrangement for functioning of High Court during COVID-19” stipulates that “the facility of hearing cases through video conferencing shall be provided on asking by the Advocate.”

It will not be out of place to mention that only ‘ Very Urgent Matters’ are being listed during this difficult times engulfed by the Corona pandemic. Since physical hearing is not advisable and also declining request for appearance via video conferencing in important matters for particularly obtaining interim orders like stay & bail adversely affect the rights of litigants and create a state of lawlessness, arbitrariness and pandemonium in the society. Moreover, it is a fact that more than 85% of the laywers practicing in the High Court are below the age of 65 and they should not discriminated and debarred from virtual hearing of their cases. Allowing all advocates to argue their cases through virtual hearing would reduce the need for physical presence of stakeholders within court premises and foster safety for the judges, advocates, staff & the litigants. The life of all advocates, whether young or old is equally important and it is the primary duty of the Courts is to impart justice without risking the legal fraternity, irrespective of age.

It is advisable for the Courts to avoid conventional ‘ Physical Hearing’ and  to promote video conferencing and virtual court platforms to deliver Justice to litigants till the situation normalises irrespective of the age of the lawyers. Even, in the District Courts the facility of virtual hearing should be promoted. The virtual hearing saves time & energy of the Courts and the contesting parties and is also very convenient and the usefulness of virtual hearing cannot be undermined. The concept of ‘ Virtual Hearing’ in District Courts would foster punctuality, honesty and faster disposal of the pending cases and help in declogging of the Courts. The Apex Court & Jurisdictional High Courts should issue necessary guidelines for speedy disposal of cases in the District Courts through Video Conferencing.

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July 2021