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The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the justice system like never before. Constraints associated with “social distancing” coupled with lockdown guidelines have led courts and tribunals to close their premises to the public. At the same time, recognizing that a complete shutdown of the justice system is undesirable, court administrators have turned to technology to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic. Various judicial and quasi-judicial bodies, led by the Supreme Court, held online hearings.
However, while these measures are commendable, they are not sufficient. This is for the following reasons:
- The virtual operating system has not been adopted by all judicial and quasi-judicial institutions in the country.
- The institutions that have adopted this system have only used it for certain cases, ie to hear and settle urgent/extremely urgent cases.
- The current situation is unpredictable. It’s impossible to say how long the “social distancing” guidelines and movement restrictions will remain in effect. It is likely that these preventive measures will be continued for some time, even after the current threat is gone.
In the current circumstances, it is essential that judicial and quasi-judicial mechanisms take steps not only to remain operational, but also to achieve maximum functionality (where possible) at the earliest. The virtual court system can be of great help in achieving this goal.
In this context, the guidelines adopted by the Supreme Court, on April 6, 2020, for the conduct of judicial proceedings across the country via videoconferencing (VC), during the period of the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic1are a welcome step. Broadly, the Supreme Court ordered as follows:
- All High Courts must ensure the functioning of the judicial system through the use of VC technologies and to this end, must decide on the modalities of use of VC technologies after considering relevant factors (such as the particularities of the judicial system in each state as well as dynamically developing public health situation).
- District courts in each state must adopt VC technologies prescribed by the appropriate High Court.
- Courts should make CV facilities available to litigants who do not have access to them, including by appointing lawyers as “amicus curiae” and making CV facilities available to those lawyers (if necessary ).
- Until the High Courts establish rules in this regard, VC technologies should primarily be used to hear arguments, both at trial and on appeal. However, evidence should not be recorded using CV facilities except with the mutual consent of the parties.
- The directions will remain in effect until further orders are issued by the Supreme Court.
On April 7, 2020, the Telangana High Court adopted Directions for the Conduct of Courts by Videoconference in the State during the COVID-19 Lockdown2. Other High Courts and tribunals are expected to adopt similar measures in the coming days.
Separately, on 8th April 2020, the Bombay High Court issued special instructions regarding the live streaming of cases scheduled for hearing on 9th April 2020 before His Lordship the Honorable Justice GS Patel.3. Previously, the High Court of Kerala had live streamed its hearings for the general public through the Zoom app.
The decision to make ongoing proceedings in the time of COVID-19 available to everyone via live streaming is a welcome move. In doing so, our courts have upheld a fundamental principle of the justice system, namely, justice must not only be rendered, but must be perceived as such.
We will update this section as new guidelines/directives are issued by judicial and quasi-judicial bodies regarding the virtual conduct of court proceedings.
1. See: Decision rendered on April 6, 2020 in Suo Motu Writ (Civil) No 5 of 2020 available at
2. See: Notification dated April 7, 2020 available at http://tshc.gov.in/documents/admin_2_2020_04_07_12_48_07.pdfread with notifications dated March 27, 2020 and March 28, 2020 available at http://tshc.gov.in/documents/admin_2_2020_03_27_13_17_49.pdf,
3. See: Report dated April 8, 2020 available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/bombay-hc-to-make-its-video-conferencing-hearing-on-thursday-publicly-accessible-on-app/articleshow/75053737.cms
Originally published April 9, 2020
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