The Supreme Court on Monday issued guidelines in order to streamline the functioning of courts through video conferencing during the COVID-19 Lockdown.
The recent outbreak of COVID-19 (Coronavirus) in several countries, including India, has necessitated the immediate adoption of measures to ensure social distancing in order to prevent the transmission of the virus. The Supreme Court of India and High Courts have adopted measures to reduce the physical presence of lawyers, litigants, court staff, para legal personnel and representatives of the electronic and print media in courts across the country and to ensure the continued dispensation of justice.
Every individual and institution is expected to cooperate in the implementation of measures designed to reduce the transmission of the virus.
Access to justice is fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy envisaged by the Constitution of India. The challenges occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19 have to be addressed while preserving the constitutional commitment to ensuring the delivery of and access to justice to those who seek it. It is necessary to ensure compliance with social distancing guidelines issued from time to time by various health authorities, Government of India and States. Court hearings in congregation must necessarily become an exception during this period.
Thus, in exercise of the powers conferred on the Supreme Court of India by Article 142 of the Constitution of India the bench directed that:
- All measures that have been and shall be taken by this Court and by the High Courts, to reduce the need for the physical presence of all stakeholders within court premises and to secure the functioning of courts in consonance with social distancing guidelines and best public health practices shall be deemed to be lawful;
- The Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorized to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technologies; and
- Consistent with the peculiarities of the judicial system in every state and the
dynamically developing public health situation, every High Court is authorised to determine the modalities which are suitable to the temporary transition to the use of video conferencing technologies;
- The concerned courts shall maintain a helpline to ensure that any complaint in regard to the quality or audibility of feed shall be communicated during the proceeding or immediately after its conclusion failing which no grievance in regard to it shall be entertained thereafter.
- The District Courts in each State shall adopt the mode of Video Conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court.
- The Court shall duly notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants who do not have the means or access
to video conferencing facilities. If necessary, in appropriate cases courts may appoint an amicus-curiae and make video conferencing facilities available to such an advocate.
- Until appropriate rules are framed by the High Courts, video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage. In no case shall evidence be recorded without the mutual consent of both the parties by video conferencing. If it is necessary to record evidence in a Court room the presiding officer shall ensure that appropriate distance is maintained between any two individuals in the Court.
- The presiding officer shall have the power to restrict entry of persons into the court room or the points from which the arguments are addressed by the advocates. No presiding officer shall prevent the entry of a party to the case unless such party is suffering from any infectious illness. However, where the number of litigants are many the presiding officer shall have the power to restrict the numbers. The presiding officer shall in his discretion adjourn the proceedings where it is not possible to restrict the number.
The above directions are issued in furtherance of the commitment to the delivery of justice. The cooperation of all courts, judges, litigants, parties, staff and other stakeholders is indispensable in the successful implementation of the above directions to ensure that the judiciary rises to face the unique challenge presented by the outbreak of COVID-19. These directions shall operate until further orders.
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