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Sneak peek into a high court during a lockdown

What do trials during a lockdown look like? A Bombay high court judge goes live for 2 hours

At the Bombay HC hearing, most participants logged in from their residences
At the Bombay HC hearing, most participants logged in from their residences (Photo: Getty Images)

Ever since the spread of covid-19 prompted a nationwide lockdown, courts have been conducting proceedings via video-conferencing. But unlike proceedings in non-pandemic times, most of these hearings have been inaccessible to the public. The video links are available only to the judges, court staff and the parties concerned. The Supreme Court is especially strict in the procedure followed: If the video links to any of its hearings is shared beyond the approved list of participants, the links risk deactivation.

On 9 April, however, Justice G.S. Patel, a Bombay high court (HC) judge, opened up his court’s proceedings. In a first for the HC, hearings were conducted via Zoom, the video-chat app that has been trending since the outbreak, and the link codes were made available on the HC website.

The webcast lasted over 2 hours. Several lawyers, activists and advocates of judicial transparency logged in. First-time users seemed rather taken by the advantages it offered over offline courtrooms, like the ability to mute anyone.

“We should implement this in the court as well," Justice Patel said merrily before wrapping up for the day.

The initiative was significant since it comes in the wake of criticism about the lack of transparency in judicial processes. Unlike Australia, the UK and the US, India doesn’t live-stream its courthouse proceedings. In 2018, the Supreme Court had directed the Union government to finalize and build infrastructure for live-streaming cases of national importance. Little, however, has been achieved since.

In recent weeks, though, there have been efforts to open up courts to the public. In February, the Calcutta HC allowed live-streaming in one civil rights case related to the Parsi community, saying it was “a matter of national importance impacting the public at large and Parsi Zoroastrians in particular". In the last week of March, the Kerala HC allowed live-streaming via Zoom in urgent matters and bail applications.

At the Bombay HC hearing, most participants logged in from their residences. For the elders, grappling with technology was a bit of a challenge. “My son helped me log in," chuckles advocate Niteen Pradhan, 67. “I have always considered myself as a student of law but to be a student of the web at this age is a bit difficult."

Others saw the possibility of making this a regular feature. “I, in fact, am going to suggest to the Supreme Court that they should have a channel of their own like the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha," senior advocate Dushyant Dave, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, told Mumbai Mirror on 12 April.

The Bombay HC, however, has stopped public access to hearings since 11 April. The notice on the high court website listing the date for the next public hearing, too, was removed. No explanations were offered.

Advocate Mohit Bharadwaj, who had argued on behalf of a client on the maiden public hearing online, suggests one of the reasons could be the possibility of misuse. “When the system is not tested properly, mischief-makers may record proceedings and it will be difficult to find culprits," he says. “An order is not passed on mathematical formula to be subjected to scrutiny of exactness. By opening up such public proceedings susceptible to recording, a floodgate may open on how an order was delivered and there could be a probable bias in passing orders causing justice to suffer."

Hearings have returned to the “restricted access system". The prospect of the latest technology facilitating judicial transparency will have to wait for another day.

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