Virtual Courts: Don’t Go Back, Zoom Forward!
Forget about reasons like the third wave, speaking purely on merits, doing away with virtual courts is a bad idea.
In India, when it comes to the practise of law, the obvious conclusion doesn't always seem to hold. One such example is the decision in many courts and tribunals being implemented, or contemplated, to go back to physical hearing only while doing away entirely with virtual courts.
In other words, adopting status quo that existed prior to COVID-19. Forget about reasons like the third wave, speaking purely on merits, doing away with virtual courts is a bad idea.
Virtual Court is an Obvious Improvement to Current Inefficiencies
To any lawyer who has been through the Indian legal system: the enormous waste of time in courts waiting for a case to reach, visiting court to only ask adjournments as a junior counsel, listlessly spending hours in the courtroom shifting in your seats and messaging on the mobile, gossiping in the corridors to kill time, being half-alive zombies during the day and waking up to life after court hours, daily tiring commute to and from home to office and court, these are part and parcel of everyday life for years if not decades. This need not be the case.
While knowing the innards of the legal system is important, it need not be this inefficient. But this waste of time is justified as being part of the "system" and understanding it.
This rite of passage of self-inflicted torture is tolerated to be part of a somewhat closed system wherein at best a chosen handful would end up possibly reaping the rewards of this effort. Most others give up litigation after a while to join the corporate world, many leave the profession altogether.
A virtual court allowing a lawyer to appear wherever situated and to switch on whenever their case reaches is an obvious improvement to current inefficiencies. Counter arguments such as it is not good for the profession especially junior lawyers miss the point entirely that most of the time spent in physical court is in large part wasted.
To Stave off Technological Progress Will Be Counter-Productive in the Long Run
What you can argue in person, you can argue over video — the physical cues, gestures and handwaving etc may be useful signals but really, they do not change the facts or legal principles of a case. If they do, something else is broken in the "system".
That it is tough to pore over voluminous material in a virtual hearing is another argument. But in most cases hard copy of paper books is filed and used in virtual hearing, so this is a non-issue.
Even if only softcopies were referred, while it may take some adjustment and practice especially on the part of Judges, this is simply changing habits to use electronic devices more. Millions of people who use the Kindle™ would agree. Further, even minor technology improvements such as using wide screen, anti-glare monitors for Judges would make significant impact.
Yes, there is a sense of camaraderie missing, an uneasy void felt when it comes to virtual proceedings. This perhaps is merely a reflection of our anxiety and fear to the process of social change felt mainly by current and older generations much like when TV or mobiles first appeared. To try and stave off technological progress is only counter-productive in the long run.
'We Cannot Ignore the Pressing Call for Simplifying How Courts Work'
Virtual courts are an idea whose time had come a long time ago. The inertia of the existing legal system unfortunately did not use its full potential until COVID made it a necessity. It should now be embraced by the courts and legal fraternity with full vigour. A hybrid system to satisfy those who still want physical hearing can be evolved to have the best of both worlds.
What happened with film distribution ignoring advent of technology must serve as an ominous warning to us in the legal fraternity. Barely a decade ago there was huge hue and cry releasing in OTT ignoring the obvious trend of where things were heading. Now, releasing in OTT is the norm.
Similarly, we cannot ignore the pressing call for simplifying how courts work, with virtual courts being only one such step, for if the current inefficient systems are continued the next generation of advocates will tend to avoid litigation practice only worsening its quality.
(Vikram is a tax advocate based in Chennai, who has been litigating in various tribunals, High Courts and Supreme Court in the last decade. He also has a background in technology with degrees from Stanford and University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He can be reached at email@example.com)
(This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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