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Judiciary In Covid-19 Pandemic

As the world faces an unparalleled threat to health from the COVID-19, the life of an individual has come to a standstill. To ensure social distancing a national lockdown was announced. Every organisation has found a way to cope up with an ongoing situation and the same happened with the Indian judiciary by proposing virtual hearing as an alternative to ensure recourse to justice. This isn't the first time that courts are using technological help in the proceedings of the case as I can recall the Praful Desai judgement where virtual presence was considered sufficient enough to comply with the requirement of Sec. 273 CrPC. It shows a step towards the changing needs of society. As Albert Einstein said:
In the middle of difficulties lies opportunities.

A circular dated 23rd March 2020 by honourable Supreme Court mentioned hearing of urgent cases through video conferencing on video desktop/application. E-filing of cases, Court fees, fines to be paid through online mode is a step to increase efficiency. Supreme Court exercised its power under Article 142 and Article 143 to extend the period of limitation. The ongoing lockdown has forced Indian courts to opt for a path that never would have been selected in the normal course of life.

Access to courts should not be taken away whether the country is under a lockdown otherwise it will lead to denial of justice. Virtual hearings in India has got a mixed response. Some embrace the decision but there is no denying that the functioning has not been really smooth. It is also true that all the cases can't be decided through online mode but it's better to have something than nothing.

Strengths of virtual courts
It will eliminate the need for the physical presence of the parties and lawyers in an already jammed courtroom. Appearing online from respective places will give a sense of personal touch, confidence and a reason to be less intimidated by the actual court experience.

It will be time and cost-effective as the people concerned don't have to travel to the courts for the proceedings. Lawyers will have the convenience to be heard in different courts on the same day without travelling. Efficiency and Productivity will be better.

Status of the case can be seen through online apps. Recording of the court hearings will bring more clarity and recorded files can be used for future reference. Extracting the data stored by one click will be helpful for judges while adjudication.

Quick and speedy disposal of cases will lead to faster justice to the society and lessen the burden of the courts.

Limited courtrooms will no longer be a point of worry to carry out justice. Sharing of data between different courts will also be easy.

Registry's working hours doesn't affect the time of the lawyers filing the case. 24 hours facility is available.

The online system will help in depletion of the paper wastage that is prevalent in the physical court system and looking at the current health crisis, control of virus can be assured through virtual hearings.

Drawbacks of virtual hearing
Doing things online is a complex procedure of which everyone is not comfortable with. According to BCI 90% of lawyers are unaware of technology. Accessibility of virtual courts is in question by the people who need to be the driving force of it.

Limited resources and lack of infrastructure is a downside to conducting the virtual hearing. A glitch in video streaming, voice not being clear has been a common phenomenon during these past few months.

Majority of Indians reside in villages giving place to remote areas courts throughout the country where a broadband facility is not available. To have a successful and flawless video streaming a 4G connection and good speed is a bare minimum requirement but we are far away from reaching that goal.

A physical presence in the court gives the judge and lawyer a chance to understand the person being questioned. Appearance, body language and behaviour of witnesses or accused helps the court to determine the character of the person that may influence the judgement. All these non-verbal cues will not be clear in online mode when compared to the offline court system.

To install the system of virtual hearings in courts is a capital intensive project and the Indian economy is not in the position to bear this cost. After this pandemic, it will take years to recover and stabilize the economy from the setback.

Absence of well-equipped staff to handle the e-records to as they have never had the chance to be familiar with the online method makes them incapable and a burden. This leads to insufficiency in the court premises which is totally opposite of what the requirement is.

Cybersecurity is a major concern. Online availability of information will make it more susceptible to hacking and data can be used for illegal means if fell in the wrong hands.

These obstacles can be quashed by taking a few steps to improve the system through training sessions of staff members of courts. Developing a cybersecurity system to keep the information safe and to come up with a technology that is less complex and easily accessible by as many people as possible. Upgradation of infrastructure is the primary need to continue the process in future. Awareness among the judges, lawyers to be more tech-savvy.

These changes are here to stay as CJI said There is no looking back so, it is better that we start embracing the change and revamp our way of working. Law must be adapting and should not lag behind. High courts and subordinate courts have taken necessary measures to downplay the impact of lockdown. Many High Courts have announced hearing of urgent matters and extension of interim orders in the wake of Covid -19. Likewise, many courts of different countries have geared up to tackle the situation.

Worldwide Judicial Operations
United States
Federal courts have adopted video and audio technologies foregoing their traditional courtroom system. Newly sanctioned Corona Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act permits chief judges to use video or telephone conferencing in certain criminal proceedings with the consent of defendants. Judiciary has provided public, media access to e-court hearings. A muted line has been set up so the media and public can hear the proceedings without the fear of interrupting the process. Most trials have been postponed

for the time being. In order to resume the courtroom function, new layouts are prepared to control the spread of the virus. Some courts have installed a sound system with a headset to ensure social distancing with the ability to whisper. Multiple courtrooms will be used for a single proceeding. These changes will ensure safety and justice to the public.

United Kingdom
The administrative staff and the judicial committee are acting distantly. All the documents, notice and forms to be sent via electronic means. Parties can email their documents to the applicable registry and will be contacted if the need for hard copy arises. Hearings are being conducted through video conferencing and will be streamed live as usual. Recordings of the proceedings are also available which shows transparency in the system.

President's approval is required to get a date for hearing in this calendar year. Judgment will be announced via the relevant website. Documents are not allowed to be edited before two weeks from hearing because the judges may have started working on them. Guidelines have been issued for the court goers regarding safety measurements in the pandemic.

Like in every country, Australian courts have also taken the support of technology to hear all trials to the extent possible. Notice for resuming proceedings from 20th July was circulated with the precautionary measures.

With everything going around in the world it seems that all these changes are here to stay for a long time. It is true that virtual courts are no replacement to the physical courts but it will stabilize the judiciary and in the future, both these systems can go hand in hand. When doors of physical courts were shut, virtual courts gave a little hope to keep the wheels of the justice going.

After the pandemic is over and normalcy returns there's going to be a load of pending cases and virtual courts can be a relief to solve petty offenses until a structured system is set to deal with an important one. Indian judicial system has a long way to go and adding e-courts on a permanent basis is surely a positive approach looking at the need of the hour.

Its's tough to adapt to a new way when all these years no prominent step was taken in this direction The only requirement is to balance both the systems. In short term, it will be a bit complex but if put to use in the planned and phased manner it will yield a positive outcome. Efforts and coordination should be put in to strengthen its roots. All the lawyers, judges, have to ensure that they are well trained, equipped to be a part of this radical change.

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