Amid lockdown, the Supreme Court heard 593 cases via video conference

The apex court of India has heard a total of 593 cases through video calls in the last 34 days. Out of 593 cases, 203 cases were related to each other or having the same issues. During the period of quarantine, the Supreme Court delivered 41 judgments and disposed of 174 cases that were related to these 41 judgments.  The court started to hear cases through video conference a day before the lockdown was announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

On 23rd March the top court also issued a circular suspending the entry of lawyers and litigants to the court premises and directing that only extremely urgent cases would be taken up for hearing through video conferencing during the lockdown period. The court sat for hearing on 17 working days with a total of 34 benches hearing cases through video conferencing. Without oral hearing, there were some petition decided by the bench of 53 judges, and 83 review petitions were disposed of by the court during the period of lockdown.

All the hearing of the Supreme Court is conducted through the Vidyo app which can be downloaded on mobile phones and desktop. The platform is hosted on the servers of the National Data Centre of the National Informatics Centre. The court also came out with standard operating procedures (SOP) for filing, mentioning, and hearing of cases through video conferencing on three occasions – March 23, March 26, and April 15.

Considering the situation of the country the best way for the proceeding and working of courts is video conferencing but there has been criticism regarding hearings through video conferencing. It is a view of an advocate who was party to the case which was heard through video conferencing.

“I was party to the video conference proceedings in a case on the Kerala-Karnataka issue. But my experience was slightly disappointing. On the first day, when the cases were taken up there were serious technical glitches on the part of the Registry as the Vidyo app did not function. So the court had to eventually fall back upon Whatsapp video calling facility. Whatsapp video call cannot take more than 3 to 4 persons simultaneously. Therefore, the judges said they will hear only government counsel. Since I was appearing for an individual, I was disconnected and an order was passed about which we came to know later. During the next hearing, the case was disposed of based on the statements made by the solicitor general without hearing us”, said advocate Haris Beeran.

A Supreme Court official said on condition of anonymity that all the judges of the Supreme Court have been provided with internet connectivity with speed up to 100Mbps at their residences so the majority of the complaints raised regarding video conferencing are concerning technical glitches faced by lawyers. Many lawyers join the calls through their phones and they are disconnected when their device receives another call. These issues can hopefully be worked out”. The court has provided helpline numbers for addressing queries relating to mentioning of the matters for urgent hearing, technical support for video conference, or e-filing.  And also the SOP issued by the Supreme Court on April 15 contained instructions to minimize technical glitches.

Another issue related to the hearing through video conferencing affects open court hearing. In India, there is always an open court hearing which means that hearing in courts is open to the public except in certain special cases involving privacy issues of parties. But because of the present condition, this system is not taking into consideration as the hearing of cases through Vidyo app can be accessed only through a web link sent by the Supreme Court Registry to the lawyers involved in the case. Access to media is also restricted with only a limited number of journalists permitted to view the hearing through a screen set up for this purpose at the Supreme Court. Open court hearings are important in retaining the trust of the citizens in the functioning of the judiciary. But access to these recordings could also be made available to the public but after taking into account privacy concerns. This is best achieved by a statutory backing. It is heartening to see that the Supreme Court has asked high courts to frame rules in this regard, Surya Prakash said.