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The Live Streaming Debate

The top court live streamed its proceedings for the first time to mark the then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana’s last day in office. Some states are also live streaming judicial proceedings, but it needs to become a more permanent feature

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“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

—George Bernard Shaw

The Supreme Court’s decision to live stream its proceedings on August 26 was for a ceremonial occasion. It was done through the NIC’s webcast portal. This was the first time that the top court live streamed its proceedings since its judgment in Swapnil Tripathi vs Union of India (2018), where it allowed live streaming of cases having constitutional and national importance. The Court recognised that providing virtual access of live court proceedings would effectuate the litigant’s access to open justice and public trial, right to know the developments of law and the right of justice at the doorstep.

“The right of access to justice flowing from Article 21 of the Constitution or be it the concept of justice at the doorstep, would be meaningful only if the public gets access to the proceedings as it would unfold before the Courts and in particular, opportunity to witness live proceedings in respect of matters having an impact on the public at large or on section of people. This would educate them about the issues which come up for consideration before the Court on real time basis,” observed the apex court in its ruling.

“Live-streaming of proceedings is crucial to the dissemination of knowledge about judicial proceedings and granting full access to justice to the litigant. Access to justice can never be complete without the litigant being able to see, hear and understand the course of proceedings first hand. Apart from this, live-streaming is an important facet of a responsive judiciary which accepts and acknowledges that it is accountable to the concerns of those who seek justice,” said Justice DY Chandrachud in his concurring, but separate judgment.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Live-streaming as an extension of the principle of open courts will ensure that the interface between a court hearing with virtual reality will result in the dissemination of information in the widest possible sense, imparting transparency and accountability to the judicial process,” the Court added.

While the verdict remained unimplemented, the sudden outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the need for resorting virtual access to court proceedings. The unprecedented suspension of physical functioning of courtrooms led to adoption of virtual court hearings. In a move towards providing digital access to court proceedings, the then Chief Justice of India NV Ramana had launched an app in May last year, providing the media access to Supreme Court video links.

In June 2021, the e-Committee of the Supreme Court released Draft Model Rules for Live Streaming and Recording of Court Proceedings, with an aim to ensure greater transparency and accountability to the judicial process as well as to foster access to justice. “The right to access justice, guaranteed under Article 21 of the Constitution, encompasses the right to access live court proceedings. To imbue greater transparency, inclusivity and foster access to justice, the e-Committee has undertaken the project of live streaming of court proceedings on priority,” the apex court said.

The Draft Rules also enumerated matters to be excluded from the purview of live streaming, which includes matrimonial matters, cases concerning sexual offences and gender-based violence against women, cases which may provoke enmity amongst communities, among others.

It is pertinent to note that the Gujarat High Court, the first High Court to live stream proceedings on YouTube on an experimental pilot basis, formally launched its YouTube channel on July 17, 2021, for live streaming of court proceedings. Besides Gujarat, live streaming of court proceedings has also been started in the High Courts of Karnataka, Orissa, Jharkhand, Patna and Madhya Pradesh.

The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, in its 103rd Report on “Functioning of the Virtual Courts/ Courts Proceedings through Video Conferencing”, emphasized on integrating virtual courts into the Indian legal ecosystem to increase access to justice, to improve efficiency and effectiveness of court proceedings and to ensure transparency and accountability. Some of the key recommendations of the Committee included:

  • Exploring the feasibility of involving private agencies taking video conferencing equipment to the doorsteps of those people who are not tech savvy to help them connect with courts.
  • Stepping up efforts to ensure timely implementation of National Broadband Mission to bridge the digital divide and provide universal and affordable broadband access to all.
  • The Committee also recommended the judiciary to consider launching mobile video conferencing facilities for the benefit of advocates and people living in remote areas.
  • Conducting training and awareness programmes in all court complexes across the country in order to acquaint advocates with the technology and to enable them to acquire skills required for handling digital platforms.
  • It recommended that the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology may be approached to develop indigenous software applications to handle virtual court hearings.
  • Noting that the lower courts in the country lack basic infrastructure and have experienced difficulties in adapting to virtual courts, the Committee recommended examining the feasibility of new financing approaches such as a public-private participation model to cater to the demand for high initial investment required for transition to virtual courts.
  • It recommended implementing a full-fledged virtual court system on a pilot basis in the first instance to allow the system to be tested in practice, which can then be refined in the light of the feedback received from different stakeholders.

The Supreme Courts and the High Courts across the world have begun live streaming their proceedings in some form or the other to ensure greater transparency. For instance, the Supreme Court of the United States uploads only audio recording of court proceedings. The Australian High Court allows recording of its proceedings to be published on its website within a day or two of the hearing. Similarly, the Supreme Court of Brazil also allows live video and audio broadcast of its proceedings.

The Supreme Court of India has emphasised the significance of live streaming of court proceedings in promoting openness and transparency which in turn reinforce public faith in judicial system. It is about time the Indian judiciary implements the guidelines laid down in Swapnil Tripathi judgment and adopts live streaming of proceedings. 

India Legal Bureau

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