A parliamentary panel has recommended continuation of virtual courts in certain categories of cases like appeals and final hearings with the consent of the parties involved even after the Covid-19 pandemic, saying it will pave way for cheaper and faster means of delivery of justice as a court is more a service than a place.
It has suggested permanent virtual proceedings for appellate tribunals like Telecom Dispute Settlement Appellate Tribunal, Intellectual Property Appellate Tribunal, National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, etc. “This will cut down the cost and increase the efficiency in disposal of the cases without being unnecessarily being adjourned. Virtual courts can deliver faster results with fewer resources. They can also reduce commute time to courts and waiting time at the courts,” the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice said in an interim report submitted to Rajya Sabha chairperson M Venkaiah Naidu on Friday.
The report underlined digital justice is “cheaper and faster”. The panel added it addresses locational and economic handicaps, ensures the safety of vulnerable witnesses providing testimony besides expediting processes and procedures.
The panel’s recommendations have come even as various Bar Councils have questioned the efficacy of the digital proceedings and pointed out the limitations of the infrastructure required for them. They have said digital proceedings favour tech-savvy advocates besides depriving opportunities to many lawyers to change the course of arguments based on the changing dynamics of a case during hearings.
The report maintained virtual courts and hearing cases through video conferencing have gained immense ground during the pandemic and will remain a new reality and new normal. It added virtual courts will promote access to justice since litigants in remote areas will be able to access the Supreme Court without spending money on travel to Delhi. “Litigants need not leave their work to attend court as they can access proceedings from their home or office. It facilitates a lawyer to argue in any court in India. A lawyer can argue in one court in the morning and be present in another court later in the day. It thereby creates a level playing field between the affluent and less well off.”
The panel has suggested necessary amendments to the law to give legal validity to virtual courts and their proceedings so that they are not questioned before courts.
The panel said there is no mechanism currently to segregate simple cases from complex ones involving cumbersome procedures and multiple witnesses. “The principle of Proportionate Justice requires that the expense, speed, complexity, and the extent of combativeness of any case should be proportionate to the substance and scale of that case. Petty cases should be dealt with swiftly in a reasonable timeframe. Such cases should not require cumbersome procedures.”
Virtual courts, the report said, can address this issue. The committee concluded that physical courts alone will not be sufficient. It added virtual courts will have to be integrated into the country’s legal ecosystem. As a first step towards this, the judiciary should identify cases that can be heard by virtual courts, it suggested.