New Delhi: The parliamentary panel report on virtual court hearings has favoured the integration of virtual courts in India’s legal ecosystem. It has said that virtual courts, after gaining immense ground during the COVID-19 pandemic, will remain the new reality and the new normal.
The report strongly recommends having certain categories of cases, such as traffic penalties, cheque-bounce, petty offences to be tried only by virtual courts in future. It has suggested extending virtual court to cover arbitration hearings, conciliation and summary trials which will help mitigate the inconvenience of attending courts as long distance travels will be dispensed with and proceedings will become less expensive.
The Chairman of the Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice, on being authorized by the Committee has presented the one hundred-third report on the subject ‘Functioning of the Virtual Courts/ Courts Proceedings through Video Conferencing’.
The committee had taken up the subject after the COVID-19 pandemic and had a detailed discussion on the subject with all probable stakeholders. After discussions, an interim report has been made to highlight the issues in the present situation the final report will be released at a later stage after complete deliberations on the subject. The report, talking about the international significance of virtual courts, has stated that virtual courts are not a new phenomenon as many countries have adjudicated cases ranging from low value civil disputes to complicated criminal cases.
In India, after the pandemic outbreak, in order to adjudicate urgent matters and to enable the judicial system to discharge its constitutional mandate of providing access to justice at all times, the Supreme Court of India rolled out virtual court hearings. During the pre-COVID period, the VC set up was primarily used for conducting remand matters to prevent movement of prisoners between courts and jails. However, after Covid, legal sanctity was given to videoconferencing by the Supreme Court by an overarching order invoking Article 142 of the Constitution of India passed on April 6, which covered all the High Courts in the country.
The committee has recommended the ministry of communications to step up efforts to ensure timely implementation of the National Broadband Mission which envisages broadband access to all so that the services provided by indigenous communication satellites are fully harnessed and the goal of universal broadband access is achieved. The committee has also opined that the judiciary may consider such innovative solutions as launching mobile videoconferencing facilities for the benefit of advocates and people living in remote areas.
The committee has recommended that training and awareness programmes should be conducted in all court complexes across the country including subordinate courts in order to acquaint advocates with the technology and to enable them to acquire skills required for handling digital platforms so that advocates operate digital platforms themselves.
The committee was apprised that majority of advocates are not well conversant with the use of information and communication technology to effectively use them to present their cases on a virtual platform and that they should acquire skills required for handling digital platforms so that advocates operate digital platforms themselves.
The committee has made note of the difficulties faced in virtual hearing like poor quality audio/video, frequent loss of connection, disruptions and high latency affects judicial assessment of demeanour, emotions and other nonverbal cues and the changing communication dynamics which are also important variables in deciding a case. Improving the quality of courtroom technology is a necessary pre-condition for virtualisation of court proceedings. The committee has, therefore, recommended that a study of courtroom design be commissioned and customized software and hardware to facilitate virtual court hearings be developed to suit the needs of Indian judiciary.
The committee has observed that integration of virtual courts into the legal ecosystem will have a significant impact on all stakeholders and feels that Members of Bar Associations and Bar Councils must also be involved in evolving a consensual process to avoid unnecessary opposition and irritants.
The facility of Virtual Courts extended to lawyers should also be considered for extension to private litigants who appear in person or have to travel to High Courts from different states and cities and places. This would go a long way in strengthening public confidence and improving perception about the reachability of the judicial system.
The Committee has concluded its report by saying that the concept of Virtual Courts has gained immense ground during COVID-19 Pandemic times and will remain the new reality and the new normal. It has therefore been recommended that the concept of Virtual Courts be extended to cover arbitration hearings, conciliation and Summary trials. If national and international arbitrations are allowed to be conducted through Virtual Courts, there will be hardly any requirement for real time travel to distant locations. This move will unlock the Courts and also mitigate the inconvenience of attending Courts as long distance travels can be dispensed with and proceedings become less expensive as well.
Read the report here;103-Report-on-Virtual-Courts
-India Legal Bureau