India: online hearings in SC, HCs
The Supreme Court and High Courts have resorted to virtual courtrooms, arguing that physical hearings are not necessary for meeting the constitutional stipulation of “open” courts. Now, with 100 Mbps Internet speed, advocates have been appearing working from home on virtual screens, and some important cases have been heard. The Supreme Court uses email and messaging services for filing of matters and conducting business.
On April 6, the Supreme Court passed a seven-page order explaining the reason for moving online: “The Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorised 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.” District courts too have been directed to move to virtual courts.
Virtual courts in other countries
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) estimates 4 billion people worldwide are outside the ambit of the law, lawyers and courtrooms, yet there is a huge backlog of cases, with about 80 million pending in Brazil and about 30 million in India.
Virtual courts have been hearing cases in Brazil, UK, China, Singapore, Bangladesh, Nigeria, Peru and Hungary.
South Africa’s Supreme Court has decided not to hold any physical hearings in May. It is refurbishing its information technology facilities. It has, however, made provisions for anyone insisting on in-person oral arguments. The South African and Ugandan judiciary is using Zoom, while New Zealand is using Microsoft teams for virtual hearings.
A Court in Nova Scotia, Canada, has suggested that even tele-warrants and PDFs be made acceptable.
Zhang Wen, president of the Beijing Internet Court, announced on March 10 that virtual courts, to have “a sense of ritual”, would have a gavel and national emblem visible to all parties as they logged in.
The US Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments via telephone.
In Norway, a criminal court only read written submissions (no one was heard) before passing an order in a rape case
Courts in Germany continue to operate physically, but the Federal Court is closed to outsiders.
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France has restricted court work to certain categories of cases. Israel’s Supreme Court too had stopped hearing non-urgent matters, but from May 3 has started hearing more matters, including criminal cases. Argentina’s Supreme Court had suspended all court activity but is now providing a minimal level of service.
Is future virtual?
On April 16, the Hague Conference on Private International Law announced the Guide to Good Practice on the Use of Video-Link under the 1970 Evidence Convention.
A community set up during the First International Forum on Online Courts in December 2018, with 300 people from 26 countries, has grown into Remote Courts Worldwide. It has noted digital courts in some form are operational in five continents, and full return to offline may be difficult.
However, the Transparency Project has flagged issues regarding the family court and how fair it is to all parties with just virtual hearings. Other concerns include access to reporting trials.