In a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court, with a 2:1 majority, has overruled the directions issued in the case of Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam, observing that if proceedings are directed to be conducted through videoconferencing, “the spirit of the 1984 Act will be in peril and further the cause of justice would be defeated”.
Chief Justice Dipak Misra and Justice A.M. Khanwilkar delivered the majority verdict, while Justice D.Y. Chandrachud dissented.
In Krishna Veni Nagam’s case, a two-Judge Bench of the Apex Court had issued guidelines providing an alternative to seeking transfer of proceedings on account of inability of a party to contest proceedings at a place away from their ordinary residence. The Court had left it open to the transferee Court to conduct proceedings or record evidence of witnesses who are unable to appear before it by way of videoconferencing.
The Apex Court, however, now opined that the spatial distance while conducting settlement through video conferencing “will distant the possibility of reconciliation because the Family Court Judge would not be in a position to interact with the parties in the manner as the law commands”.
It also made reference to Section 11 of the Family Courts Act, 1984, which mandates the proceedings to be held in camera if one of the parties so desires. It then observed that the procedure of video conferencing, which is to be adopted when one party gives consent, is contrary to Section 11 of the Act.
It explained, “There is no provision that the matter can be dealt with by the Family Court Judge by taking recourse to videoconferencing. When a matter is not transferred and settlement proceedings take place which is in the nature of reconciliation, it will be well nigh impossible to bridge the gap. What one party can communicate with other, if they are left alone for sometime, is not possible in video conferencing and if possible, it is very doubtful whether the emotional bond can be established in a virtual meeting during videoconferencing. Videoconferencing may create a dent in the process of settlement…
…When most of the time, a case is filed for transfer relating to matrimonial disputes governed by the 1984 Act, the statutory right of a woman cannot be nullified by taking route to technological advancement and destroying her right under a law, more so, when it relates to family matters. In our considered opinion, dignity of women is sustained and put on a higher pedestal if her choice is respected. That will be in consonance with Article 15(3) of the Constitution.”
The Court then observed that the statement of law made in Krishna Veni Nagam’s case -- that if either of the parties gives consent, the case can be transferred -- “is absolutely unacceptable”. It, however, agreed for an exception to be carved out to the same, ruling that a witness can be examined in video conferencing, provided that both the parties consent to it and that such application is made only after the settlement fails.
It clarified, “We reiterate that the discretion has to rest with the Family Court to be exercised after the court arrives at a definite conclusion that the settlement is not possible and both parties file a joint application or each party filing his/her consent memorandum seeking hearing by videoconferencing.”
The Court, thereafter, summed up its conclusion as follows:
“(i) In view of the scheme of the 1984 Act and in particular Section 11, the hearing of matrimonial disputes may have to be conducted in camera.
(ii) After the settlement fails and when a joint application is filed or both the parties file their respective consent memorandum for hearing of the case through video conferencing before the concerned Family Court, it may exercise the discretion to allow the said prayer.
(iii) After the settlement fails, if the Family Court feels it appropriate having regard to the facts and circumstances of the case that video conferencing will sub-serve the cause of justice, it may so direct.
(iv) In a transfer petition, video conferencing cannot be directed.
(v) Our directions shall apply prospectively.
(vi) The decision in Krishna Veni Nagam (supra) is overruled to the aforesaid extent.”
Justice Chandrachud’s dissent
In his dissenting judgment, Justice Chandrachud opined that “proper adoption of video conferencing does not negate the postulates of an in-camera trial even if such a trial is required by the court or by one of the parties under Section 11.”
He made reference to Section 9 of the Act, which recognizes discretion for the Family Court to determine a way to structure the process for a settlement. Besides, he noted that the High Courts can frames rules under the section and the Family Court may, subject to those rules, “follow such procedure as it deems fit”.
Such provisions, he opined, are sufficiently enabling to allow the Family Court to utilize technological advances. Justice Chandrachud, thereafter, explained, “It would be inappropriate to deprive the Family Court which is vested with such wide powers and procedural flexibility to adopt video conferencing as a facilitative tool, where it is convenient and readily available. Whether video conferencing should be allowed must be determined on a case to case analysis to best effectuate the concern of providing just solutions. Far from such a procedure being excluded by the law, it will sub serve the purpose of the law.”
He also explained the scenarios where either of the spouses does not want to be in the same room as the other, for instance, where there are serious allegations of marital abuse. Moreover, he emphasized on the fact that videoconferencing is gender neutral and ensures that one of the spouses cannot procrastinate and delay the conclusion of the trial
Justice Chandrachud was, therefore, of the view of that the legislation has enabling provisions which are sufficiently broad to allow video conferencing. In such a scenario, confining it to the stage after the settlement process “will seriously impede access to justice”, he observed.