In times of lockdown, a case for media access to courts

Though restrictions are necessary given the situation, the courts must ensure that reporters can inform the public about legal proceedings, say lawyers

April 22, 2020 10:03 am | Updated 10:03 am IST - New Delhi

Delhi High Court

Delhi High Court

The unprecedented suspension of the functioning of the Delhi High Court and its subordinate courts in the Capital due to COVID-19 pandemic has presented it with the challenge of holding open court hearings.

Urgent cases are being heard through videoconferencing and daily orders are uploaded on official websites, but only those litigants/advocates appearing before the court know what transpired during the hearing.

While the Supreme Court has made special arrangement for a separate room on its premises where a limited number of journalists can watch the daily proceedings while maintaining social distancing, the same is not the case with the Delhi HC or its subordinate courts.

Gyanant Singh, Delhi-based advocate and columnist, said: “Reasonable restrictions are justified in the present circumstances but extraordinary challenges need to be met with extraordinary measures. Merely uploading orders are not enough, people have a right to get an impartial account of what transpires during proceedings”.

“The court should ensure that regulation in this regard does not amount to imposing a restriction. It should use technology to strike a balance and ensure that freedom of the press and the peoples’ right to know continue,” said Mr. Singh, who previously worked as a legal journalist for over 15 years. Making a case for media access to court proceedings during the lockdown, M.K. Venu, Founding Editor of The Wire , said: “Capturing crowded courtroom drama is an inherent part of court reporting, especially in big political or criminal cases of public interest.” Citing the example of the Indira Gandhi assassination trial, Mr. Venu said: “I wonder how that case could have been reported in circumstances that exist today... It does impinge on a journalists’ right to take every aspect of court proceedings to the people.”

In March 1966, a nine-judge Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court had emphasised about the efficacy of open trials for upholding the legitimacy and effectiveness of the courts and for enhancement of public confidence and support.

“All cases brought before the courts must be heard in open court. Public trial in an open court is essential for healthy, objective and fair administration of justice,” the top court had said.

Over half-a-century later, in September 2018, the Supreme Court made a landmark verdict allowing live streaming of its proceedings in cases of constitutional and national importance.

Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, who was part of the three-judge Bench, in a separate but concurring judgment, had said: “Live streaming of proceedings is crucial to dissemination of knowledge about judicial proceedings and granting full access to justice to the litigant”.

“Access to justice can never be complete without the litigant being able to see, hear and understand the course of proceedings first hand. Apart from this, live streaming is an important facet of a responsive judiciary which accepts and acknowledges that it is accountable to the concerns of those who seek justice,” Justice Chandrachud said.

“By embracing technology, we promote a greater degree of confidence in the judicial process. The Chief Justices of the High Courts should consider adoption of live-streaming both in the High Courts and in the district judiciaries,” Justice Chandrachud added.

While the verdict remains unimplemented, the COVID-19 lockdown nudged the top court to hear urgent matters through videoconferencing from March 27.

The hearings took place with judges and lawyers sitting at their respective homes. The feeds from the videoconference is made available only to a limited audience, including journalists, on the Supreme Court premises.

Before replicating the same system at the High Court, Mr. Singh cautioned, “We need to work out modalities given the fact that people may not yet be mature enough to understand the intricacies of law and legal proceedings and even observations could unnecessarily provoke violence in society in some sensitive cases. To begin with, the HC should facilitate live-streaming for the media. The Supreme Court is already doing it”.

Krishna Prasad, former Editor of Outlook , said: “It would be useful for the legal reporting fraternity to open a line of communication with the Delhi High Court and subordinates courts, to impress upon them the need for reporters to be given ‘live’ access, like in the Supreme Court,” Mr. Prasad added.

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