Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee, in its interim report, on the ‘Functioning of the Virtual Courts’ has recommended that the Bar Council of India introduce a computer course as one of the subjects in the three year/five year courses to enable students to get trained in handling computers and adapt to the online systems while they pursue a Law Course.
This will, the report says, help educate and equip budding lawyers with knowledge and skills required for handling digital platforms.
The report also suggests that the Judiciary consider broadcasting virtual hearings of certain specified categories of cases to further the principle of open justice and open Court. For this purpose, the Standing Committee agrees with the observations of the Supreme Court’s judgment in Indira Jaising vs. Supreme Court that live streaming Court proceedings, especially cases of constitutional and national importance having an impact on the public at large or a section of the public, will promote transparency and openness.
The Committee, in its report, has also suggested that Virtual Courts can be extended permanently to various Appellate Tribunals like Telecommunications Dispute Settlement and Appellate Tribunal (TDSAT), Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) etc., located across the country which do not require personal appearances of the parties/advocates.
Permanent Virtual Courts can also be established for hearing matters relating to Administrative and other Tribunals at the time of the final hearing.
This will, the Committee says, cut down the cost and increase the efficiency in disposal of the cases without being unnecessarily being adjourned. In this context, it has also recommended that necessary Amendments may be brought in laws to legalise Virtual Courts and its proceedings without being unnecessarily challenged before Courts.
It also recommends that the feasibility of involving private agencies/service providers who can help people who are not tech savvy in connecting with Courts by taking VC equipment to their door step on payment be explored.
As regards the connectivity divide, the Committee recommends that the Ministry of communications 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.
It also suggests that the Judiciary consider such innovative solutions as launching mobile videoconferencing facilities for the benefit of advocates and people living in remote areas.
To address the ‘skill divide’, the third facet of digital exclusion, the Committee recommends that training and awareness programmes 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
The Committee notes that it understands how 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.
In this context, it has 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 report also empahises on the integration of Virtual Courts into the Legal Ecosystem.
“Information and Communication technologies have impacted every facet of human life. Global legal systems are increasingly embracing evolving technologies to keep pace with the information society. It is time, the Court room which is often regarded as the last bastion of antiquated working practices, opens its doors to the latest technology”, the Committee says.
To begin with, the report says, the Judiciary may identify categories of cases that can be tried by Virtual Courts. The Department of Justice in its written replies to the Committee submitted that the following cases may be tried in the Virtual Court – Offences under the Motor Vehicles Act (Traffic Challan cases), Petty offences where summons can be issued under Section 206 of CrPC., Cases registered under Section 138 of Negotiable Instruments Act, Motor Accident Claim Petition cases.
The Committee is of the view that all such matters where personal presence may be dispensed with, can be transferred from regular Court establishments to Virtual Courts. The Committee believes that Virtual adjudication will bring massive benefits across the system.
With respect to complex cases such as those involving the interpretation of Laws, facts, the examination of a large number of witnesses and so forth, the Committee suggests that a hybrid model may be adopted wherein manual processes such as filing of the plaint, vakalatnama, issuing of summons etc may be automated and digitized and the hearing held in a physical Courtroom.
The Committee headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav held a series of meetings with the Secretaries of the Department of Justice and Department of Legal Affairs, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court and representatives of the Bar Council of India, Delhi High Court Bar Association and Delhi District Courts Bar Association on ‘Virtual Courts’ during which it heard both the pros and cons of virtualization of Court proceedings.