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SC invites bids for system to allow virtual and physical hearings at the same time

The Print logo The Print 12-09-2020 Bhadra Sinha
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New Delhi: The Supreme Court has invited tender bids to install state-of-the-art technology to support virtual hearings. Once in place, this is expected to transform the way proceedings are heard.

Senior SC registry officials associated with the project told ThePrint that the new system will herald a unique format to hold court hearings, one that will allow a bench to hold simultaneous physical as well as virtual hearings.

This will also address concerns of litigants as well as lawyers who are unable to travel from faraway places to participate in open-court hearings.

The move to embrace technology for dispensation of justice has come amid the Covid-19 pandemic that compelled the top court to switch to digital courts to hear cases. Virtual hearings had commenced a day before the lockdown was announced on 24 March, in a move to conform to social-distancing norms and restrict footfall in the court premises.

The court is in the process of resuming open-court hearings, but will take up only those cases in which lawyers of contesting parties have consented to appear in person and argue. A user guide was released Saturday for those opting to be a part of limited physical hearings.

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New tech to make virtual court hearings akin to an open court

At present, virtual hearings in the top court are being conducted through an app called Vidyo, which, officials say, is actually meant for conferences and seminars.

“It does not give a feel of an actual courtroom,” a registry official said, adding, “This system does not give the privilege to the judges to consult each other without being heard. If judges want to discuss a contentious issue, they have to switch off the speakers to do so. And, in case judges comprising a bench are in their respective offices, then they call up each other to consult. Similarly, lawyers do not have anonymity while seeking instructions from their clients or juniors when the proceedings are on.”

What is proposed is creation of a platform where there are virtual private consultation rooms within the system to allow lawyers and judges to migrate when they want to engage in a discussion. “It will be just like open-court hearings where you can witness discussions, but not be privy to them,” said the officer.

Also read: Allegations against judges due for promotion have become a regular phenomenon, CJI Bobde says

Virtual hearing can take place during an open-court hearing

The technology and software will be designed to facilitate a simultaneous virtual hearing during an open-court proceeding, another registry official told ThePrint.

“Cameras will be installed in all the courtrooms along with large-screen monitors for both judges and lawyers. An audio system will be set up. This will enable judges to have a mix of the two formats — virtual and open-court.”

Explaining the procedure that is likely to be followed, a third official said: “Suppose, during a hearing, a judge wants to seek an expert opinion. The judge can immediately ask the court staff to connect with the expert virtually, without adjourning the matter. Similarly, in several matters, the court invites the Attorney General for assistance. Instead of waiting for the AG to come physically to the court, the bench can seek it virtually.”

Further, litigants and lawyers who cannot travel to Delhi to argue cases or attend proceedings will be able to do so with the new system. However, some alterations to the rules will have to be done for the same, the official said.

Also read: Let virtual courts continue after pandemic, they are safer & faster, parliamentary panel says

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