The Outbreak of COVID-19 brought a number of changes in everyone’s life. Digital transactions got immensely popularised at every level. It made our world digital quicker than any scheme or initiative. Every system be it government or private or any other turned on to digital platforms, and with this going on our judicial system was no exception. With the whole nation in lockdown, the courts were also shut down because of the drastic disease which was affecting people at a very fast pace. Because of this, the Indian judiciary came to a screeching halt but with the zeal to serve justice, our courts were held online, and a proper system of the virtual hearing came into existence. But very our judiciary jolted to the new reality and adopted the Virtual mode of hearings.
The Supreme Court of India issued some guidelines invoking Article 142 of the Indian Constitution as an extraordinary jurisdiction. The district courts were also directed to adopt virtual court hearings through modes prescribed by the concerned High Court. Presently, courts are working on the hybrid mode, where physical as well as virtual mode is permitted. In some advanced countries, physical hearings are only to take place if a remote hearing is not possible and suitable arrangements can be made to ensure safety.
The courts’ technological infrastructure is also being rapidly upscaled to support expanded utilization of telephone, video, and other technology (including Skype for Business, Zoom, and BT conference call). High Courts across the country have favoured virtual hearings. There is a number of advantages to Virtual Hearings as they are time savers. The meetings can be scheduled properly and even if there is a delay then the other involved person does not have to wait in the courts for long hours and they can manage their time in the comfort of their home or home cum office. They are more efficient as working has become easier. The process for documentation and other things has become more well-ordered and planned.
A virtual court system leads to more productivity. It also enables the wider participation of advocates and judges. Travelling from far distances to courts is not an issue anymore as all the involved people can attend the hearing from any place. A lawyer can argue in one court in the morning and be present at another later in the day, travelling is not an issue anymore. Also, as the information is available on a real-time basis, the digital signing of orders ensures smooth and instant communication of bail orders. The biggest and most important merit of virtual hearing is that everyone’s safe. Health is the most important thing and if one lives in a safe environment and if the courts can provide such an environment to the litigants, lawyers, judges, and every other person involved in the working of the court, then nothing can be said to be better than that.
It does not mean everything is hunky-dory in the virtual system of court hearings. There are many demerits also. One of the most important concerns in the virtual hearing of the cases is that it is a new system and getting acquainted with it, it is taking a lot of time. Most of the lawyers are not satisfied with the online working of the matters. The next very important factor is that, in a virtual hearing, it is very hard for a judge to effectively understand the body language of the accused or the victim or to determine the credibility of the witness
In physical courts, it is comparatively easy for the judge to take note of the credibility of the witness through their body language; It is one of the psychological factors which cannot be made use of in the virtual hearing. There is also a huge risk of witness tampering as the authority cannot be aware of what is going on behind the screen or if the witness is being manipulated. There are technical issues like the network problem, availability of internet facilities in a particular area, disruption because of the weak network, etc, which in turn leads to further dragging of the case and slowing down the process of serving justice. While most of the court sessions are public, however the same cannot be done in the virtual hearing also the very fact that the virtual hearing meeting passwords can be hacked or used by other than the involved person in a confidential case is a huge risk present in the virtual hearing of the courts.
Moreover, it is a costly affair, as not all advocates carry modern smartphones, they are also further limited by the non-availability of unlimited data packs or broadband connections. When many advocates are struggling to make ends meet, they can ill afford to spend a premium on sophisticated handsets or huge data plans. There are also difficulties faced by the court staff. This is a modern era where we are moving forward to become a more digital and technology-oriented nation. Nobody can deny that physical hearings are part of the soul of our judicial system but with that, we are a country that can face any challenge, and this is a very challenging time for our judicial system, and it is acing it.
Virtual hearing does have its own limitations and it is in no way a perfect replacement for the actual functioning of the court. Accessibility is a core function when it comes to the judiciary. The quality of adjudication in the courtroom does not serve any purpose if justice cannot be accessed by people in the first place. Whatever one may say but the virtual system of hearings has come to stay, and the only need is to further be improvised or improved for the better working of the courts.