BJP MP Bhupender Yadav-led parliamentary standing committee on law and justice has recommended that virtual courts should continue even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. The panel strongly pitched for virtual courts saying that digital justice was much cheaper and faster besides addressing locational and economic handicaps.
"It is time, the courtroom, which is often regarded as the last bastion of antiquated working practices, opens its doors to latest technology," the panel said.
The parliamentary committee had studied the issue of virtual courts, or holding judicial proceedings through the video conference during the pandemic. The standing committee on personnel, public grievances, law and justice submitted its report to Rajya Sabha chairman on Friday. This is the first report to be presented by any parliamentary panel on the impacts of COVID-19 pandemic.
The standing committee went into the definition of court. After examining various provisions, mentions and glossaries with regard to the definition of the court, the committee said that the court is more a service than a place, thus fully supporting the virtual court proceedings during the pandemic.
Despite opposition from the lawyer associations, the panel said digital courts will also ensure greater safety of vulnerable witnesses providing testimony. “They expedite processes and procedures and are an improvement over traditional courts as they are most affordable, citizen-friendly and offers greater access to justice.”
The representatives of the Bar had argued before the standing committee that the virtual proceedings favour the tech-savvy advocates besides depriving lawyers of an opportunity to present their case and change the course of arguments based on the changing dynamics of a case.
"An advocate gets to understand the mood of the judges and stands a better chance at convincing them during physical hearings. However, online hearing creates a psychological pressure on both the advocates as well as the judges. Evidence recorded by means of video conferencing may distort non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, postures and gestures," the Bar had contended before the Yadav-led panel.
However, the committee noted that over 50 per cent of advocates, mostly at the district and lower courts are not having either a laptop or a computer and lack of skills required for virtual proceedings. “In coming times, technology will emerge as a game-changer and advocates would be required to use technological skills in combination with their specialised legal knowledge and, therefore, they should keep up with the changing times," the panel said.
Even the Supreme Court had, in its order, invoking Article 142 of the Constitution on April 6, 2020, covering all the High Courts, the parliamentary committee recommended making necessary changes in the concerned laws so that the virtual court proceedings are not unnecessarily questioned in the Courts.
Yadav-led-panel urged the government to enable necessary infrastructure for integrating virtual courts into the country's legal ecosystem. The committee was informed that 3,477 courtrooms are supported with facilities for virtual proceedings while 14,443 are still to be provided with them. Virtual court facilities have been operationalised between 3,240 court complexes and corresponding 1,272 prisons for conducting remand matters and to prevent movement of prisoners between courts and jails.
In another significant suggestion, the panel said not only the virtual proceedings be continued beyond the pandemic, but also be extended permanently to various Appellate Tribunals like TDSAT, IPAB, NCLAT located across the country which do not require personal appearances of the parties/advocates.
It further said that permanent virtual courts can be held for hearing matters relating to Administrative and other Tribunals at the time of final hearing as it will cut down the cost and increase the efficiency of disposal of cases without being unnecessarily adjourned.
Among other suggestions of the panel, the committee E-SewaKendras be set up in all court complexes, speedy execution of National Broadband Mission, introduction of computer course in 3/5-year law courses, developing an indigenous software platform to ensure data privacy and safety, providing WAN (Wide Area Network) facility to all, adoption of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Block Chain Technology for a transformational change in the dispensation of justice.