Physical courts: Delayed hearings?

Physical courts: Delayed hearings?

A court is not a place where one spends an abysmal amount of time

Supreme Court of India. Credit: Reuters File Photo

The news is full of stories about the experiences of the Supreme Court on its first-day-first show after the Covid lockdown. Loud whispers were heard about how advocates first bumped into each other and then proceeded towards the court halls. The scenes sounded perfect for a romance movie.

What succeeded was one of the loudest arguments and debates, in stark contrast with the scenes witnessed earlier. The debates were also filled with emotional outbursts about how they missed each other.

At the moment, the Supreme Court of India will hold physical hearings on two days per week. This can be read as physically and emotionally present, as it seems now. However, for how long can this utopian courtroom continue without rhetorics, personal jibes and muting and unmuting of people, in reality? 

The jurists who did not have to travel took time during the pandemic to educate the world. We can find an institution of videos on YouTube and other platforms where everyone who is apprehensive of going to court or who did not have the means to go, and most importantly, did not have a necessity to go — went to the court through the jurists who shared their knowledge. Now, things have changed. For the better? We do not have an answer yet.

A court is not a place where one spends an abysmal amount of time. A civil litigant will await justice not because she does not have a case, but because her advocate asks the court for time and the court gives time or a host of reasons unknown to the litigant.

The situation becomes grim for a criminal litigant who languishes in the jails because she is accused of a crime or is awaiting the punishment for the act committed. In either case, the delay is going to be a lot longer now.

Why do I say this? Of the many reasons for the delay quoted by advocates or courts, the simplest and most easier is this: "I have to be in the Supreme Court today for a matter." It is a different question whether your advocate really has a case listed that day.

The fees negotiation is now going to be an easier discussion because, the lawyer can say, “Wow, I have to approach the court in person for this and this requires my time, accommodation, dining, entertainment and the cost of loss of opportunity of being present somewhere else." Expensive, indeed!

To what end is this helpful for the speedy justice system is to be evaluated. The boundaries which divide the court are the petitioner and the respondent. The boundaries were apparent in the video conferencing time when the illustrious backgrounds of the advocates were the talk of the bar. The case before the court was important as the advocate had to rush to the next video meeting or Zoom in some cases. Advocates tended to quickly summarise what they wanted to say, lest they miss the next hearing.

The equation was simple: The more the appearances, the more the money. Now the reduction in appearances has to be compensated, and the way it would work out is a bit worrisome. By shedding the volume, the advocates have to increase the rack rates for appearances. Because, duh! "We need to be in court."

The court proceedings which were erstwhile unknown to a common person have now been made more accessible. The Gujarat High Court is a stellar example. The Supreme Court of India intends to go the same way. We will see live proceedings someday soon, thanks to Justice D Y Chandrachud's initiatives. A common person can access at the district level court proceedings in an app!

What a long way that we have come in just a short span of Chandrachud's spearheading of the project! Everyone was amazed, but now, I wonder if we will go ahead at the same pace because, let us face it, being somewhere physically consumes a lot of time including travel and other issues.

Now we ask the question: Have we thrown a spanner in the works, with resuming of physical hearings?

(The writer is a barrister and legal counsel)

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