All India Association of Jurists, a Chennai based organisation of lawyers, has filed a petition before the Supreme Court praying that the option given to lawyers/ litigants to appear before the Supreme Court through video conference should be continued as “a matter of right” even after the Court resumes physical hearing (All India Association of Jurists v. Union of India).
The contentions in the petition are primarily two fold: one, furthering the fundamental right of lawyers to practice any profession under Article 19(1(g); and two, enabling the right of citizens to have access to justice under Article 21.
The plea has said that virtual hearings which happened by chance due to Covid-19 pandemic, in fact had the effect of opening the doors of justice to large sections of population and lawyers who were earlier alienated from the Supreme Court because of costs of litigation at Delhi and geographical factors.
“The petitioner through this petition merely seeks that option of virtual access to Supreme Court be continued as an option,” the petition filed through advocate Sriram Parakkat has prayed.
It is the petitioner’s case that the plea has been filed in furtherance of the right of lawyers across the country practice any profession under Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution.
Before Covid-19 struck and virtual hearings kicked in, lawyers from far away places were many times unable to appear before the Supreme Court. While there was no prohibition on lawyers from across India to appear before the the top court, they were denied the opportunity due to added costs and lack of geographical proximity, the petitioner has submitted.
The use of video conference to hear cases presented them with that opportunity, the petition claims.
The continuance of virtual hearing as an option will enable them to realise their right under Article 19(1)(g), the plea states.
Further, the petitioner has claimed that virtual hearings have also enabled citizens, access to justice by negating geographical and financial barriers.
In this regard, the efforts of the Supreme Court in keeping the Court functional through the pandemic by employing technology have been lauded.
“By doing so, the Court has not only kept its door open every single day but has opened the doors of justice much wider to larger sections of population of India who were (earlier) alienated by costs and geographical factors,” the petition reads.
Thus, from the viewpoint of citizens of the country, this petition is an assertion of their right to access justice protected under Article 21 of the Constitution, the plea adds.
“The present petition seeks to fulfill goals of increasing access to justice of far off citizens, and right to legal practice of who due to different ailments, old age and other physical dispositions are alienated from physically appearing before the Supreme Court,” the petitioner has contended.
The petition has also taken an unfavourable view of the stance taken by the members of the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) who have demanded re-opening of physical courts without any option for virtual hearing.
In the correspondences exchanged between SCBA members and Supreme Court, reliance had been placed on reopening of malls and cinema halls to argue that courts should also resort to full physical functioning.
“The petitioner association submits that this comparison is wrong on the footing that a Court of Law mandates attendance and there is no choice as regards the same unlike the examples quoted,” the plea states.
Phyiscal hearing in a limited hybrid manner is slated to commence in Supreme Court from March 15.
Under the hybrid system, when a matter is heard in physical court, the parties will have the option to appear either physically or virtually.
In other words, when a matter is heard in physical court, one party can appear physically and the other party can appear virtually.
The present petition by All India Association of Jurists is effectively praying for continuing with such a system/ mode permanently.
Physical hearing of cases at Supreme Court was suspended on March 23, 2020 after the after the outbreak of Covid-19. The apex court has been hearing cases via video conferencing since then.
Virtual hearings are conducted through Vidyo app, which can be downloaded on mobile phones and desktop.
The Court had earlier attempted to resume physical hearing in September 2020, but with little success.
It had, in fact, modified the Court rooms and installed infrastructure to commence physical hearing in a limited way, but the same was met with a lukewarm response from the Bar.