“It must be noted that technology plays an essential role in securing access to courtrooms and as a result, access to justice for citizens across the country….The use of technology by the Bar and the Bench is no longer an option but a necessity.”
-Hon’ble Dr. Justice D.Y. Chandrachud
(Chief Justice of India)
The COVID-19 pandemic had unleashed unprecedented challenges on the global scale, reshaping industries, economies and in our case, the world and ecosystem of disputes and litigation, and eventually the way we all live and work. It was probably the most difficult time across the world where people were restricted to the physical confinement of their own homes and the world at large was forced to evolve and adapt to the virtual sphere of communications and access to information.
Though forceful in nature and with much resistance, the legal sector including but not limited to courts and tribunals, but also the general interaction inter se clients and advocates evolved from the traditional physical meetings/hearings to the VC era. The services like Zoom, MS Teams, Google Meet, Cisco Webex, etc., an innovation at the time, have become a must/necessary requirement, which has to keep up with the changing/ever-evolving times. In India, while companies continue to segregate work-from-home and work-from-office, and try to strike a balance, the Indian legal system has, in the author’s view, jumped a light year in a manner of speaking.
The technological advancement and access to justice from the nook and cranny, from smaller towns to urban cities have seen the novel concepts of e-filings, virtual arguments, not just before district courts, but also to the benches of the Supreme Court of India, and as the pandemic diminished, the reliance on these services started diminishing, while the courts try to figure out whether they are virtual, physical or hybrid. In fact and spite of the above, most of the well-known, tech-savvy tribunals and courts, slowly and steadily, started moving to a physical/offline mode of hearing and the aspect of the virtual setup was on a decline and in some cases, removed altogether.
In a very welcome move by the Supreme Court of India in the matter of Sarvesh Mathur vs. The Registrar General High Court of Punjab and Haryana, the highest court of the land came to the aid of the citizens of the country while providing them access to justice speedily and efficiently, and showed a resolute commitment towards leveraging technology in the legal domain. The intent behind this landmark decision is to adapt and evolve the court system to meet the demands of the digital age, ensuring greater accessibility, efficiency, and convenience for all stakeholders.
In this pursuit, the Supreme Court issued notice to inter alia the Registrar General of all the High Courts, National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission the National Green Tribunal and other similar tribunals under various ministries, seeking an affidavit qua the status of hybrid hearings and the necessary facilities available for the same in the respective courts.
Subsequently, on October 06, 2023, the Supreme Court issued a series of well-thought-out directions, putting a quietus the issue of virtual/hybrid/physical, and directed all courts and tribunals to set up video conferencing services to all members of the bar without any requirement or prior request. The Supreme Court also provided the below key directions pursuant to this order, namely:
- High Courts must provide video conferencing and hybrid hearing options to advocates and litigants.
- Ensure free and reliable internet/Wi-Fi with ample bandwidth within High Court premises.
- Develop a Statement of Purpose for video conferencing access.
- Supply video conferencing/hybrid hearing links in daily cause lists without preconditions.
- High Courts to provide the details such as a) inclusion of video conferencing licenses obtained by High Courts, b) report on the number of hybrid hearings conducted since April 1, 2023, and c) steps taken to guarantee internet facilities within every High Court.
- Mandate technology training for advocates and judges.
- Direct Tribunals (e.g., NCLAT, CESTAT) to establish proper hybrid hearing infrastructure by November 15, 2023.
- State Governments should fund the necessary facilities for High Courts for compliance with the above directions.
- Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology with the Department of Justice to ensure internet connectivity in North-East and other regions such as Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Jammu & Kashmir.
As of the date of this present article and pursuant to the aforestated order (two weeks lapse i.e., October 20, 2023 has already happened), it is now mandated that all the High Courts and Tribunals including CESTAT, ITAT, NCLAT, NCLT, AFT, NCDRC, NGT, SAT, CAT, DRATs and DRTs, are bound to allow all litigants and members of the bar video conferencing services without any prior request, which became the norm post the ending of the lockdown.
Such a directive by the Supreme Court clearly shows and upholds the quote cited at the beginning of the article and reaffirms that the VC technology is here to stay and the judiciary should not turn back the clock, rather it should assist both, the members of the bar and the litigants, for ease of accessibility and access to justice, regardless of their geographical location whether in India or abroad and the authors would imagine that the same be used before all forums by the legal sector to ensure and apprise the courts that such VC facilities are provided without any restrictions and demur for efficient access to justice.
For ease of reference, the entire copy of the order is available here.
 W.P. (Cr.) No. 351 of 2023.