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CJI Bobde: Tech reliance during Covid-19 has led to new inequality

The CJI was speaking at an event organised by the Supreme Court to commemorate Constitution Day that was attended by President Ram Nath Kovind and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

CJI Bobde

Chief Justice of India S A Bobde said Thursday that the “pandemic has been the biggest challenge in delivering unhampered justice to the common man”, and urged the government to look for solutions for a “new kind of inequality” that has emerged from justice becoming “technology dependent”.

The CJI was speaking at an event organised by the Supreme Court to commemorate Constitution Day that was attended by President Ram Nath Kovind and Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad.

In his welcome address, Justice N V Ramana, the second most senior judge in the apex court, spoke of the “unfounded criticism” that Constitutional institutions were facing and said the only answer was to work hard to fulfill Constitutional duty.

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“There is a trend of unfair and unfounded criticism against our Constitutional institutions. Such criticism destroys the public trust, which harms the foundation of democracy. The only answer for this criticism is to work hard to fulfill our Constitutional duty. Nothing should deter us,” Justice Ramana said.

Opinion | Shivam Singh writes: In defence of the Supreme Court

In his address, Kovind said the “notion of justice implies access to justice.” “Improving access to justice for all is a work in progress…And on this count, I am pleased that the higher judiciary has been making available its judgements in more and more regional languages,” he said.

CJI Bobde said that “very early on”, the Supreme Court became aware that the effects of the virus had the “potential to threaten the rule of law itself and completely block out access to the justice system”.

“There had to be an instant mutation in the justice delivery system and the choice was very clear. Either to switch to virtual hearing or the other option to shut down the courts completely. Throughout the current pandemic, the courts had to deal with difficult situations pertaining to migrant workers, woefully inadequate facilities for treatment of dying men and women, dead bodies not receiving burial for fear of infection, inadequate hospital beds and unaffordable costs of treatment,” he said.

“Hearing matters through video conferencing has given rise to a new kind of inequality. It was difficult to anticipate this and it is extremely difficult to deal with it because we are caught in a bind. That inequality arose because access to justice has become technology dependent. It has become difficult for those who do not have access to technology to gain access to justice,” he said, while appealing to Prasad, who is also IT Minister, to come up with a remedy.

Attorney General of India K K Venugopal said further innovations to hearings by video conferencing, such as live streaming, could be implemented. “I can envision one day, with the Law Minister being present, he is also in charge of telecommunications, where every single subordinate court in this country, every High Court, will have video conferencing, video streaming,” he said.

Prasad pointed out that despite the challenge, “close to 50 lakh cases have been heard from the Supreme Court, to the High Court, to the District Court during this period” digitally.

The Law Minister also hit out at criticism of the judiciary that “goes beyond propriety” and terms such as “judicial barbarism”.

“Of late, I see a lot of criticism of the judiciary. Indian judiciary from day one has always welcomed criticism. Why not? There have been very recurrent criticism of collegium and appointment of judges, on which some of us also share our views. But that is a different part while giving due respect to these institutions,” he said.

“But of late, I see a…disturbing trend. The trend is that some people have a view on a particular case to be filed, or that if it has been filed, that a judgment should come. There are narratives in the newspapers, there are campaigns on social media as to what kind of judgment should come. And if the judgment is not in accord with that, then there is further sweeping criticism. I would say, if the judiciary has to be independent, judges have to be left completely free to decide their cases in accordance with law…statements like judicial barbarism is totally unacceptable, regardless of the stature of those that mention these things about our judiciary,” he said.

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