The Supreme Court on Monday, modifying the directions issued on April 6 in suo moto matter pertaining to guidelines for functioning of Courts via video conferencing during the lockdown imposed in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, stated that High Courts may formulate their own rules for video conferencing.
A Bench comprising of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, and Justices DY Chandrachud and L. Nageswara Rao were presiding over the matter in a Special Bench and, noting that there was a change of situation since April, stated that the High Court's rules for virtual hearings would extend to trial matters as well as appellate proceedings.
Today's Order, therefore, notes that "there has been a change in situation since April, 2020. In many States, the situation has eased and it has been possible to even commence hearings in congregation. We must say that the system of Video Conferencing has been extremely successful in providing access to justice".
After altering the April 6 order by substituting sub-para (vii) of Paragraph 6, the Apex Court also observed that several High Courts have framed their Rules already and those who have not, "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 to all the Chief Justices of the High Court".
In today's hearing, Attorney-General KK Venugopal apprised the Court of the success of virtual hearings, and also added that there were, however, technical glitches and that Justice Chandrachud could find the best platform for the conduct of video conferencing.
Justice Chandrachud, who is also the Chairman of the E-Committee, informed the Counsels present that tenders had been issued for the same.
"We have a national tender for High Court and District Court so that we can have a common virtual hearing platform. Now, we either have Zoom, Cisco or Vidyo. A Committee of 4 High Court judges has been appointed and they formulated rules which was circulated to all the High Courts. 11 High Courts have adopted the model rules", stated Justice Chandrachud.
At this juncture, the CJI posited the proposition that High Courts would be allowed to frame the rules for themselves as well as for lower courts as resources and Wi-Fi differed from High Court to High Court. There was further a difference in the degree of e-literacy amongst advocates.
A discussion then ensued on the usage of fibre optic networks and satellites.
The CJI stated, "Initially we wanted the Centre to give us a satellite, but we were advised that it was not a good idea and that fibre optic network would be better. However, as fibre optic network is not present in North-East, a satellite could be used there. This will help tremendously."
To this, the AG submitted that the National Informatics Centre (NIC) was dealing with the same. The CJI informed the AG that Justice Chandrachud was in touch with the NIC, but the Centre had to make a binding statement before the Court.
Justice Chandrachud touched the aspect of how some degree of financial help would be required from the Centre once the project was initiated on a pan-India basis; a Parliamentary Committee had submitted a report on the E-Courts project and the report claimed that the infrastructure of the Courts needed to be upgraded.
The AG then informed the Court that smartphones, especially in rural areas, were enough to conduct hearings. He also mentioned that live hearing could be on the Court's agenda so that hearings could be witnessed across the country.
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, appearing on behalf of Reliance Jio, informed the Bench that they had the best optical fibre network and, was accordingly instructed by the Court to get in touch with the e-Committee.
Justice Chandrachud then said, "We are also looking to set up an e-Sewa Kendra in High Courts which can help lawyers who don't have the basic infrastructure for VC hearings. Centre will need to provide financial assistance. 3350 kendras will be needed for 3350 courts".
Senior Advocate Vikas Singh, on the basis of whose letter the Supreme Court had taken suo moto cognizance of the instant matter, then made submissions pertaining to infrastructural changes to the Supreme Court.
"There could be a cubicle area in the annexe building where lawyers can attend the virtual hearings. Transfer and bail pleas can only be heard by VC. The Media needs to the given a separate kiosk for covering of proceedings and they will be saved from running around and flood the Court corridors. Another library can also be created where lawyers can wait", submitted Singh.
The Court made a note of this and informed Singh that a Committee would be constituted, comprising of Supreme Court judges, as well as people from NIC and PWD, and Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, and the suggestions could be given to them.
Before concluding, the Court informed the Counsels present that a decision would be taken on the matter soon.
The matter will now be listed post the Diwali holidays.