NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court on Monday said the system of video-conferencing in providing access to justice to citizens during the ongoing pandemic situation has been "extremely successful" and granted liberty to the high courts to frame rules for such virtual hearings for themselves and the subordinate courts.
The apex court said it would think later over the issue of live-streaming of its proceedings, when Attorney General K K Venugopal referred to such practices being adopted in the Madras High Court.
The top court, after taking suo motu (on its own) cognizance of a letter written by former Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president and senior lawyer Vikas Singh, had on April 6 issued a slew of directions to use technology for conducting hearings in courts across the country to avoid congregation due to the "extraordinary" outbreak of COVID-19.
"We must say that the system of video-conferencing has been extremely successful in providing access to justice," a bench comprising Chief Justice S A Bobde and justices D Y Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao said, adding that the directions issued by it earlier need not change except the one related to the power of the high courts to decide on the course of the virtual hearings.
"We propose to substitute sub-para (vii) of Paragraph 6 with the following: The Video Conferencing in every High Court and within the jurisdiction of every High Court shall be conducted according to the Rules for that purpose framed by that High Court.
"The Rules will govern Video Conferencing in the High Court and in the district courts and shall cover appellate proceedings as well as trials. We are given to understand that several High Courts have framed their rules already. Those High Courts that have not framed such Rules shall do so having regard to the circumstances prevailing in the state. Till such Rules are framed, the High Courts may adopt the model Video Conferencing Rules provided by the e-committee, Supreme Court of India...," it said in the order.
The bench also noted in the order that its directions were issued "in furtherance of the commitment to the delivery of justice" and were intended primarily to cover the measures that the top court had to adopt to meet the challenges posed by the pandemic.
"There has been a change in the situation since April, 2020. In many states, the situation has eased and it has been possible to even commence hearings in congregation," the bench said.
At the outset, Venugopal said the system of video-conferencing has worked very well and pointed out the "glitches" in the functioning of the facility in the apex court, while urging Justice Chandrachud, who is heading the e-committee, to take the necessary steps.
Justice Chandrachud said tenders have been issued to find a person to take care of the complete video-conferencing facility of the apex court and for the high courts and trial courts, a national tender would be given to ensure a common virtual hearing platform.
"Right now, every high court is either on Zoom or Cisco or Vidyo," he said.
"Once we are doing that on a pan-India basis, some degree of financial help will be needed from the Centre. We have appointed a committee of four high court judges. That committee has formulated rules for the video-conferencing, which was circulated to all the high courts, and the suggestions have been incorporated and the model rules formulated. Eleven high courts have adopted the model rules," the judge said.
Venugopal raised the issue of live-streaming of the apex court's proceedings and said it has been working well in Madras High Court.
The court said there are a lot of issues that cannot be discussed publicly and it would think over the matter later.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said live-streaming would lead to people filing petitions just for the sake of "being heard all across the country".
Granting the liberty to the high courts to decide as to what kind of video-conferencing facilities they would like to use, the bench said there is the issue of "e-literacy" as well and moreover, there are issues related to the types of network available in a particular state.
"We would like the Centre to give us access to the optical fibre network. Earlier, we wanted the Centre to give us the satellite but later, was advised against it and now, we seek access to the optical fibre network. We have an eye on the e-filing of cases," the bench said and asked Venugopal to consult government officials and help the e-committee.
Senior advocate Harish Salve told the court that Reliance Jio has the "best optical fibre network", which is not expensive.
The bench told Salve that the company can formally meet the e-committee of the apex court in this regard.
It also said a committee comprising some apex court judges, the attorney general and the solicitor general would be formed to consider suggestions to improve the functioning and facilities in the apex court.
Earlier, the top court had issued a slew of directions on the functioning of courts through video-conferencing during the pandemic.
A court hearing in congregation must become an "exception" during the "extraordinary outbreak" of the COVID-19 pandemic and it is necessary that all courts respond to the call of social distancing to ensure that they do not contribute to the spread of virus, it had said.