streamed proceedings make justice transparent

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Transparency and access to justice have always been the hallmarks of an independent and impartial justice delivery system. The decision of the full court of the Supreme Court on 20 September to Livestream Constitution Bench hearings.

Transparency and access to justice have always been the hallmarks of an independent and impartial justice delivery system. The decision of the full court of the Supreme Court on 20 September to Livestream Constitution Bench hearings from 27 September is a refreshing step – a move that literally allows access to justice from a litigant’s armchair.

By permitting live-streaming, the Supreme Court has clearly welcomed and opened itself to wider public scrutiny and gaze – thereby inspiring public confidence in its fairness, objectivity and impartiality. Constitution Benches of the Supreme Court deal with cases involving important questions of far-reaching public interest or issues pertaining to substantial questions of law. Three such issues – EWS Case (challenging the 103rd constitutional amendment which provided reservation for the economically weaker section), Shiv Sena issue (Maharashtra political crisis) and the validity of AIBE (All India Bar Examination), heard by three different 5- judge benches of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice U.U. Lalit, Justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul respectively were beamed live through YouTube, generating over 7 lakh views.

Open trials and courts are long-established principles of common law jurisdictions and hence it is not alien to the Indian legal system. The Constitution of India adopts the concept in Article 145(4), which states that the Supreme Court shall be an ‘open court’. The Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 in Section 153-B and the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973 in Section 327 extend the principle of open courts to all civil and criminal courts in India. A nine-Judge Bench of the Hon’ble Supreme Court in Naresh Shridhar Mirajkar v. The State of Maharashtra (1966) held that all cases must be heard in an open Court and the right of access to justice flows from Article 21 of the Constitution.

In 2018, the question of access to justice through live streaming of court proceedings, came to be determined in Swapnil Tripathi vs. Supreme Court of India. The Supreme Court while permitting live dissemination of proceedings, laid down comprehensive guidelines for live streaming. The Court held that the right to know and receive information is a facet of Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution which entitles the public to witness Court proceedings involving issues having an impact on the public at large. The Full Court’s decision was thus an implementation on the administrative side of a decision on the judicial side taken almost four years ago.

Implementation of live streaming was not an easy choice as it was fraught with technical, privacy and security issues, among others. The sudden advent of Covid-19 and the ensuing lockdown accelerated the technological revolution in the justice delivery system. The Court which until then had been following the traditional mode of hearing where the parties and lawyers physically appear, suddenly had to shift to video conferencing mode to continue dispensing and delivering justice. The success of the video conferencing mode to impart and conduct court proceedings gave confidence and conviction that live-streaming was indeed a possibility. Technological advancement also ensured the courts in India were equipped with the necessary infrastructure to live stream the court proceedings.

The Gujarat High Court was the first to start live streaming of court proceedings on YouTube; Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and Patna High Courts followed. Litigants involved in a large number of cases pending before the Courts throughout the country benefitted and this stimulated other High Courts to follow suit. Recently, even in the Supreme Court, the proceedings before the ceremonial bench on the last working day of Chief Justice of India N V Ramana were live streamed for the public.

Live streaming brings with it immense potential to deliver access to justice to every nook and corner of the country. The technology of live streaming injects radical immediacy into courtroom proceedings. Each hearing is made public within seconds of its occurrence. It enables viewers to have virtual access to courtroom proceedings as they unfold – thereby upholding the public’s right to know about court proceedings. It minimises and obliterates the public’s reliance on secondhand narratives to obtain information about important judgments of the Court thereby allowing not only litigants but also the public at large to form reasoned and educated opinions about the functioning of courts and its orders – thus reducing misinformation and misunderstanding about the judicial process.

Live streaming also serves an educational purpose whereby law students and young and upcoming lawyers will be able to observe and learn from the arguments and interactions in the court. Further, since the proceedings will be recorded and archived, it will be a source to study legal advocacy procedures, interpretation of the law, oratory skills, etc. Live streaming and broadcasting will also increase the reach of the courts as they can penetrate every part of the country and will remove physical barriers to viewing court proceedings. This will also reduce the congestion which is currently plaguing courtrooms. It will reduce the need for litigants to travel to the courts to observe the proceedings of their cases.

Access to justice can never be complete without the litigants being able to see, hear and understand the court proceedings and this was the reason for open access to court – or ‘open courts. Courts have been especially slow to adapt to the complexities and changes as a result of advancements in technology. But live streaming of court proceedings is a welcome step to promote greater confidence in the judicial process. More courts in India need to adapt to the changes of our times, especially live streaming of court proceedings, subject to concerns of privacy and sensitivity of cases.

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