The Great Legal Show
By Dr Swati Jindal Garg
Erik Pevernagie, the Belgian painter and author of Words of Wisdom, rightly said: “No hemming or hawing, no hinting or manipulation, no sledgehammer–subtlety may hold us back from claiming a climate of transparency and capturing an untainted and luminescent skyline, when the boldness of the truth is coming defiantly to the fore.”
The recent decision of the apex court to begin live streaming of its proceedings has taken us a step forward in ensuring judicial transparency. The landmark decision has ensured that not only law students across the country, but the general public see and understand what goes into making judges decide an important question of law. It is also a big wake up call for all those who had the audacity to say that the judicial system of the country was not strong or hardworking enough and that is why there are a large backlog of cases in courts.
To begin with, only three Constitution Bench proceedings were webcast on YouTube by the National Informatics Centre. But sooner or later, all courtrooms will function under the watchful glare of the entire world. More than eight lakh people watched the live streaming of these benches. This included the five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice of India UU Lalit in Court No 1, Justice DY Chandrachud-led bench in Court 2 and Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul-led bench in Court 3. The three benches were deciding questions pertaining to the EWS quota, issues thrown up by the Shiv Sena split and the legal challenge to the All India Bar Examination.
Even though honesty and transparency can make one vulnerable, the apex court took this mammoth step of laying itself bare by broadcasting its proceedings. The impact on both the bar and the bench cannot be understated. Performing one’s duty within the four walls of courtrooms and doing so under the watchful and probing gaze of the public are different ball games altogether. Public scrutiny can whittle the strongest of Davids.
While on the one hand transparency increases credibility and accountability, it also increases pressure on the already overburdened judiciary. There are many decisions which are right, but not so easily acceptable to all. The road to good intentions is always paved with a thousand stones.
One section that was elated with this decision was the student fraternity, especially law students, along with citizens who were interested in keeping abreast with matters of public importance. Where else, after all, can one have the opportunity of watching the likes of former AG KK Venugopal, senior advocates Kapil Sibal, Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, Meenakshi Arora and a host of others.
There were also some who argued the case remotely, thus paving the way for non-Delhi lawyers who had been asking for a regional bench of the apex court in their respective states. The Supreme Court had been reiterating that due to virtual hearings, it can truly be said that justice is reaching the doorsteps of litigants and hence, the need for a regional bench had whittled down to some extent.
Even though the Supreme Court started live screening recently on September 27, it was High Courts which took the lead by streaming their proceedings on YouTube much earlier. This includes the High Courts of Karnataka, Odisha and Gujarat. In fact, some of these proceedings were also captured on camera and become viral. This includes a High Court judge scolding a government officer for not dressing appropriately for a court appearance. In another case, a judge was not convinced by the arguments of a lawyer during a bail matter and asked him to argue the appeal against the conviction, which sent the lawyer into a tizzy.
However, not all days are so enthralling and those expecting intense dramas on the first day of live streaming were in for a disappointment as all they witnessed were arguments in support and against the question being decided. Historical precedents, judicial citations and legal terminologies occasionally being interjected by the judges who sought clarifications on certain points were not too interesting to watch for most people.
Just as every dark cloud has a silver lining, Covid-19 too made the Indian legal system more techno-savvy. Virtual hearings became a big saviour and the benefits of work-from-home were welcomed by all. This was a boon for all those lawyers who did not practice in Delhi and only dreamt of putting across their submissions before the apex court. The posting of all orders online has, to a large extent, done away with the requirements of certified copies of court orders. Live-streaming is the next big thing towards transparency and access to justice.
The live-streaming was totally glitch free and the credit can be largely attributed to Justice DY Chandrachud who heads the e-committee of the Supreme Court. Justice Chandrachud has also been in the forefront of reforming the judicial system by bringing it up to date with evolving times and keeping abreast with the latest technology.
The Supreme Court in its guidelines for the phased commencement to telecast court’s hearings live said: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant and the live screening would reduce the public’s reliance on second-hand information and would help reduce misinformation and misunderstanding about the judicial process.”
The Court also said: “Live-streaming is a significant instrument of enhancing the accountability of judicial institutions and all those who participate in the judicial process. Delay in the dispensation of justice is a matter of serious concern. Live-streaming of court proceedings will enable members of the public to know the causes of adjournments and the reasons why hearings are delayed.” Live-streaming was further said to “enhance the rule of law and promote better understanding of legal governance as part of functioning of democracy.”
The physical limitations imposed due to the size of courtrooms and security concerns are all done away with in the virtual world. Justice Chandrachud said: “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. Live-streaming is a significant instrument of establishing the accountability of other stake-holders in the justicing process, including the Bar.”
Even though some say that total transparency risks a country’s stability, it cannot be denied that transparency in one’s attitude will win trust from everyone.
—The writer is an Advocate-on-Record practising in the Supreme Court, Delhi High Court and all district courts and tribunals in Delhi