Law Ministry panel bats for more virtual courts

Calls for their continuation post-COVID-19

Updated - September 11, 2020 05:36 pm IST

Published - September 11, 2020 12:27 pm IST - New Delhi

File Photo: It was suggested that virtual proceedings can be extended permanently to various Appellate Tribunals like TDSAT, IPAB, NCLAT etc located across the country.

File Photo: It was suggested that virtual proceedings can be extended permanently to various Appellate Tribunals like TDSAT, IPAB, NCLAT etc located across the country.

Parliamentary Panel on Law and Justice headed by BJP MP Bhupender Yadav has recommended continuation of virtual courts even in a post-COVID scenario but also sounded a word of caution that infrastructure needs to be upgraded especially in district courts to implement this.

This is the first report to be presented by any parliamentary panel on the impact of the pandemic.

In its report “Functioning of the Virtual Courts/ Courts Proceedings through Video-Conferencing”, the panel has argued that transfer of certain categories of cases, like cases pertaining to traffic challans or other petty offences, from regular court establishments to virtual courts will reduce the pendency of cases. It has suggested that a full fledged virtual court should be piloted in the first instance. Currently there are 30 million pending cases.

The committee further stressed that, “It is time, the courtroom which is often regarded as the last bastion of antiquated working practices opens its doors to latest technology.”

During the pre-COVID period, the video-conference(VC) set up was primarily used for conducting remand matters to prevent movement of prisoners between courts and jails. Such VC facilities have been operationalised between 3,240 court complexes and corresponding 1,272 prisons.

Also Read | Virtual court system in Supreme Court hits a century

Note of caution

Stakeholders including Bar Association members and others who met the committee have noted that the present infrastructure does not support virtual court proceedings. The committee was informed that 3,477 court rooms are supported with facilities for virtual proceedings while 14,443 are still to be provided with them.

A representative of the Bar deposing before the panel said, “As far as e-Courts and Virtual Courts are concerned, I can say with certainty and with an element of responsibility that in India, almost 50% lawyers, particularly in district courts, do not have any laptop or computer facility. How can we assume and presume that they would participate in these Virtual Courts and e-Courts?”

The Calcutta Bar Association cited another instance before the committee. “There are 38 judges in the Calcutta High Court but there is not sufficient infrastructure to enable all Hon’ble Judges to undertake virtual hearings. For example, on 03.08.2020 only 8 Hon’ble Judges were able to take up matters virtually both in Division Bench as well as singly,” Association representatives said.

Many witnesses said the virtual court hearings, especially during peak hours when many people log into the video-conferencing system, was subject to frequent crashes of the system and said entire proceedings can be vitiated by one glitch.

Also Read | Virtual courts will benefit masses, says SC judge

Privacy concerns

There were also concerns that virtual courts will compromise privacy of data as well as confidentiality of discussions and court proceedings. For instance, courts in the United States had to deal with Zoom bombing — an unwanted intrusion by hackers and internet trolls into a video conference call — while conducting court proceedings through Zoom, which is a third party software application. Currently, third-party software applications such as Vidyo, Cisco and Jitsi are being used in India for conducting hearings through video-conferencing.

“Third-party software is not only an unviable option but also poses a major security risk as such software programs and applications are prone to hacking and manipulation. The Committee recommends the Ministry of Law and Justice and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology to address data privacy and data security concerns while developing a new platform for India’s judicial system,” the report said.

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