One thing is sure- the Covid-19 Pandemic, which has plagued the whole world, is not ending soon. Rather it is reappearing in some countries after its extinction. The present pandemonium & chaos would only end if the virus dies on its own or its cure/vaccination is soon developed or there is ‘herd immunity’ amongst the people. The Covid-19 Era has brought in novel ways of living & conducting business/profession. The Courts have also evolved new ways to dispense justice to the aggrieved. Virtual Hearing, enabled by new IT Technologies, has been instrumental in conduct of cases in the Apex Court & the High Courts, when these Courts were physically shut due to onslaught of Covid-19 Global Pandemic.
There is wide debate as to whether Virtual Hearing would be an effective co-alternate to in-person hearing/physical hearing in the post Covid era. Due to unprecedented success & ease of conducting cases through video conferencing, there is a logical & fervent demand to make Virtual Hearing a co-alternate redressal platform for the existing and future litigation. During the initial phases of lockdown, the online hearings were restricted only to the urgent matters but have now been extended also for non-urgent matters. It should not be forgotten that the Courts are overburdened with the ever mounting pendency of cases clogging the entire Judicial System. It is worth mentioning that virtual hearing can be conducted with the arguing counsels sitting anywhere in the world and not necessarily practising in the same Court. Senior Advocate Harish Salve is arguing cases through virtual hearing while living in London. However, the Bar Councils of these Courts are thus opposed to this idea because such a system promotes ‘outside’ lawyers and also ‘specialist’ lawyers sitting anywhere in the world. It is also being urged on behalf of the local Bar that Advocacy is a carefully practised art and the flow of presenting the case is of critical importance, which is not possible in the case of virtual hearing and therefore prejudicial to the interest of the litigating parties. It is true that virtual hearing may not be effective in cases involving voluminous factual records and compilations but on legal issues/questions of law the arguments along with appropriate citations can be addressed during the course of virtual hearing without any problems. The detailed judgements given as a consequence of virtual hearing are in no way inferior in quality & content to the ones given earlier after physical hearing. It will be apposite to refer to virtual hearings conducted in International Arbitration Disputes even in normal times with all its constituents sitting in different locations across the Globe.
Recently a lawyer insisted on open court hearing through regular system saying lawyers are not able to argue properly or are sometimes muted, or cut short. The Supreme Court pulled up lawyer and reprimanded him. “On one hand you want an urgent hearing. Then you don’t want virtual courts too. Then let us close down virtual courts too” snapped Justice Rao at lawyers during the hearing of pleas challenging Maratha quota in jobs and educational institutions. On another occasion when during the course of hearing in the Apex Court the lawyer complained that Virtual Hearing was not possible as the documents run to thousands of pages, Justice Rao observed: “Ok. You want urgent hearing, then say it is not possible through the virtual court. When do you think Covid-19 will subside and regular courts will start? What is your estimate…At least we have no idea. We started this system so that things keep going even during these times. If you don’t want then let us shut down virtual courts also.” The bench said it will go ahead with the virtual court and commence day to day final hearing on petitions.
It is pertinent that an activist lawyer Kishan Chand Jain filed a letter Petition before the Allahabad High Court being PIL No 570 of 2020 through which it was pleaded for introduction of online filing of all matters and their hearing through video conferencing till the Novel Coronavirus as global pandemic completely ends from the Country. Through the Petition it is asserted that the coronavirus is not expected to end in the near future and there is possibility of the at-least 10000 people coming every day to the Courtrooms and the lawyer’s chambers from all over the country being infected. Moreover, the age bracket of a large number of the lawyers practicing in the High Court are 60 years plus, and they are more vulnerable to the infection of Coronavirus. It was also prayed to allow Online Filing of all matters, to avoid the litigants, staff of the lawyers coming to the registry in connection with the filing of the matters etc. It was urged that all non-urgent matters, which are filed online as per the procedure prescribed by the Court, should be heard through video conferencing. Such hearing should be on the basis of online filed documents and should be conducted by the Hon’ble Judges from a place convenient to them, it was solicited. Such a procedure would not require hard copies of the matter to be sent to the Hon’ble Judges hearing the matter. Since generally, the State and Corporations are the respondents, their Standing Counsel can be well served through mail. It was also prayed through Virtual Hearing & online filing would lead to saving resources. It was also asserted that virtual hearing will also help in unclogging the Courts and reducing pendency and early disposal of the matters.
The said petition was virtually heard on 29-05-2020 by a division bench of the Court. While disposing of the said petition on the same date, the Court observed as under:
“The Allahabad High Court as well as many other High Courts and the Supreme Court have already adopted the e-filing system and virtual hearing through Video Conferencing to a limited extent as per the infrastructure facility available and it is hoped that in recent future the infrastructure for such filing and hearing would be extended and strengthen to a great extent.
In view of the aforesaid facts and circumstanced, we do not deem it necessary to issue any direction on this letter petition and leave it upon the Supreme Court and the different High Courts including Allahabad High Court to take necessary steps in this regard.”
From the above, it transpires that Virtual Hearing has opened a Pandora box for hearing of matters by the Courts with the ‘Ease of Doing Justice’. The outcome of ‘Virtual Hearing’ has been very encouraging and has paved a concrete way for the future. The facility of online filing has been hassle free. The Concept of Virtual Hearing has been so well accepted that it calls for a National Policy for its wide acceptance. According to me, the Admissions of SLP in the Apex Court & admission of Petitions, grant of stay, grant of Bail and final disposal of Appeals etc. involving Questions of Law both in the Apex Court and the High Courts should mandatorily be done by Virtual Hearing only. Only those matters which require appraisal of voluminous records should be listed for Physical Hearing. Out of 5 days working in the Apex Court, 3 days should be allocated for Virtual Hearing while all the Benches should do Physical Hearing on the remaining 2 days. This will also save time, energy & resources of all stakeholders and help in unclogging of Courts.