Covid 19 has brought in unprecedented changes in our lifestyle, our business, our profession and the functioning of the administration and the courts. Due to emergency arising out of Covid pandemic, the Courts were initially closed down but there were important matters which needed immediate indulgence of the Courts specially the jurisdictional High courts and the Supreme Court.
The Courts could not sit in person as neither the judges nor the advocates could take the risk of going to the courts and personally hearing or arguing the matters for the fear of Covid. Since the outside conditions not being conducive, it was decided that in urgent matters ‘virtual hearing’ of the cases should be done. Accordingly, a few benches of the Apex Court & the High Courts started functioning ‘ virtually’ and after detailed virtual hearings the Courts passed reasoned judgements like before.
However, it cannot be denied that facility of video conferencing has a lot of limitations and is in no way an absolute replacement of the actual functioning of the Courts. It is therefore being canvassed by the Bar Associations of various High Courts that the physical hearing in the courts be resumed. Moreover the Bar also expressed concern over the fact that the working of the lower/ District courts have come to a standstill due to lockdown. They therefore called for resumption of judicial work by starting physical and actual hearing of cases in the district courts.
Presently only a few urgent cases are listed for hearing through video conferencing although after Unlock -1 some more urgent cases through mentioning are ordered to be listed in the High Courts. It cannot be denied that the infrastructure in the High Courts and the subordinate courts do not allow listing of all cases of urgent nature which used to be listed in the cause list of urgent cases prior to imposition of lockdown.
It is a cause of worry that almost 95 per cent of the lawyers are not comfortable with virtual court hearings. It is for this reason that virtual hearings pose a major deterrent to present cases effectively. The problem is immense when the matters involve several parties and appearances by many lawyers. All lawyers are not given a chance to speak and sometimes their mics are put on mute by the coordinator as a result of which their matters get heard in their absence. There are problems with poor audio and video quality of hearings and the lawyers are not being able to effectively put forth their arguments.
Mostly when a Senior Advocate or arguing Counsel appears, he is left to appear on his own. The Advocate on Record/briefing lawyer is unable to assist the Senior advocate effectively in the virtual hearings.
The number of cases which are being heard by courts, including the Supreme Court has reduced drastically after video conference hearings were introduced.
From March 23 to May 1, the Supreme Court heard 835 cases as against 800 cases being heard every normal working day when physical hearings used to happen.
Several lawyers have expressed their concern over the loss of livelihood during the past few months. Without resuming the normal functioning of Courts, the said concern can not be addressed.
Justice DY Chandrachud, Supreme Court judge and chairperson of the e-committee of the court, had said on May 24 that virtual court hearings will not replace or be a substitute to physical courts:
“I want to dissuade people from the idea that virtual court hearings are some sort of a panacea. They will not be able to replace physical court hearings. We had to resort to virtual court hearings because Covid-19 descended without warning and we had no other choice. We had to protect those who come to court: lawyers, litigants, media personnel, para-legal, interns,” he said at a webinar organised by Nyaya Forum of National Academy of Legal Studies and Research, Hyderabad.
Since movement of individuals have commenced, shops/showrooms havel opened, train & air travel has commenced, restaurants have started functioning & malls & hotels to open shortly, it is high time that the actual/physical working of the court should be started at the earliest.
The present working system is not only insufficient but improper for delivery of justice. In view of the above, there is pressing need to restart physical functioning of the High Court and the subordinate courts for imparting expeditious justice to the common man. However, the court complexes need to be sanitized and the use of masks, sanitizers and physical distancing should be mandatory & followed meticulously.