Video conference hearing is the best thing to have come out of Covid-19 pandemic, Bombay High Court judge, Justice Gautam Patel said on Sunday opining that a judge should be allowed to conduct virtual hearing even after the pandemic if he/she wants to.
He clarified that virtual courts will not be a replacement to physical courts but suggested that it should remain as an option for a judge.
“Virtual court has kicked in 21st century inside court rooms. Video conferencing as an option is here to stay and it should remain an option. A judge should be allowed to impose virtual hearing if he wants to,” he said.
Justice Patel was speaking at a webinar on “A vision for virtual courts” jointly organised by Forum for Fast Justice, Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT) and National Federation of Societies for Fast Justice.
Justice Patel also gave certain suggestions for ensuring smooth functioning of virtual courts.
He said that there should be a dedicated software for all courts across the country.
The websites of all courts should be uniform and inter-connected to let users get data across all courts, he said.
He also called for ramping up courtroom infrastructure to support virtual hearings while acknowledging that updating the present facilities would be expensive.
Towards that end, Justice Patel expressed hope that court administration and State governments would co-operate for such technological renovation.
“Under no circumstances can I accept courts saying we do not have the infrastructure. Well, then get it. Also, the government cannot say that we do not have the knowledge of the system or that it is expensive. It is monstrous. We are not using this system for video games! It is the opposite of that. If we need bigger screens, with cameras and speakers, we will need them and it will be expensive,” he said.
Justice Patel cited the examples of Gujarat and Karnataka High Courts to point out how those courts were working seamlessly between virtual and physical hearings.
“Everything is happening on the dot! I do not see any flaw in virtual courts,” he added.
While praising the efforts of courts to go paperless, Justice Patel also said that there were certain glitches in the system which need to be addressed.
Importantly, for an effective functioning of virtual courts, it was important for each judge to have either fully trained staff or be fully trained himself/ herself, he said.
Justice Patel also shared his experience with virtual courts stating that he was able to manage his board properly with virtual hearings and lawyers could also save time.
He also shared the statistics from his court as per which 1,948 were listed before him through video conference, of which he disposed of about 940.
Retired Bombay High Court judge, Justice RC Chavan who also spoke at the webinar, underscored the importance of striving towards virtual courts stating that the Supreme Court e-committee Court was aiming for paperless courts and virtual hearings in all courts across the country.
He, however, highlighted the dichotomy in courts allowing e-filing of cases and documents while also continuing to mandate filing of hard copies of the same.
“Why would parties who have chosen e-filing have to file hard copy as well. You file a hard copy and then you get it scanned. Why do courts even insist on hard copies?” he asked.
Justice Chavan also opined that virtual courts could be the solution for overcrowded court rooms and could help lawyers save time which would otherwise be spent waiting in the court rooms for their matter to be taken up.
The session was moderated by Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner. Chairman of PCGT, JF Riberio delivered concluding remarks.