Decongesting courts way past COVID-19 pandemic

Rajat Kain

File photo - Supreme Court of India

File photo – Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court has directed that court complexes should be decongested in view of the COVID-19 situation in the country.

While its directions were given in the current context of the pandemic, the court’s decision has suggested the possibility of keeping decongestion going even after people put the threat of COVID-19 behind them.

On Monday, the three-judge bench of the apex court led by Chief Justice SA Bobde said the courts must function only through video conferencing while the lockdown is on.

It also directed appointing state officials of National Informatics Centre (NIC) to act in consonance with the respective high courts and formulate a plan for the virtual functioning of the court.

The directions came while hearing a suo moto case to frame guidelines for courts for hearings via video conferencing.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao, the other two members of the bench held the view that a viable and tech-friendly system needs to be set up, that will work even after the nationwide lockdown is lifted.

Welcoming the court’s directions, several legal experts felt that decongestion of the courts is a step in the right direction.

Citing instances of e-hearings, retired Allahabad High Court judge Justice Satish Chandra said, even though the concept is yet to reach its full potential, it has certainly given a promising heads-up.

“We have systems like e-filing and e-hearing in the Income Tax Appellate Tribunals (ITAT) where cases related to Ranchi were heard at Delhi tribunal through e-hearings. Why was this needed? There were very few cases and it was thought fit to have hearings and arguments via an online mechanism,” the retired judge said.

Lawyers also welcomed the mechanism.

“In the reasonably foreseeable times, there may only be a COVID controlled era and hence distancing is a way forward,” said senior advocate Ajay Brahme, adding that in a populous country like India we will, however, have to develop adequate infrastructure to make it happen.

Regarding taking forward social distancing rules, advocate Padhmalakshmi Iyengar said we can first start with decongesting special courts like NGT and other tribunals, which have the problem of pendency of cases. She also favoured enforcing legal provisions to decongest the trial courts, High Courts and the Supreme Court.

“The quickest way to decongest the court is to insist on certification by the lower courts about which cases can be taken to the higher courts. Of course, cases pertaining to bail and fundamental liberty shall be given priority,” Iyengar said.

Under Supreme Court guidelines, the presiding officer of the court can restrict the entry of persons in the courtroom to uphold social distancing rules. The guidelines also stated that district courts are to follow the videoconferencing rules as formulated by their respective high courts.

However, amid these guidelines, experts also call for creating a congenial ecosystem for the litigants, who are the primary stakeholders in court proceedings.

“Work on computerisation has been going on, committees on e-governance have also been set up but there are few glitches still in the system,” former Union Law Secretary P.K. Malhotra said as he emphasised having more courts hearings through the video-conferencing where the nature of the case permits.

The Supreme Court in its directives added that it is not about any particular technology or method. The larger issue it said is to keep evolving with methods to reach a level of decongestion beneficial to all the stakeholders.

“This cannot be seen as a temporary issue. Technology is here to stay,” Chief Justice Bobde said as he passed the directions on Monday.