Effect of non-hearing by Courts of regular matters - Sufferance for Litigants

After the outbreak of the Corona Virus or COVID-19 Pandemic, the already heavily burdened Indian Courts are now faced with a further challenge on how to conduct proceedings without the presence of Litigants and through technological means.

Immediate Impact on the Judiciary

After the outbreak of the Corona Virus or COVID-19 Pandemic, the already heavily burdened Indian Courts are now faced with a further challenge on how to conduct proceedings without the presence of Litigants and through technological means. The Indian judiciary was already facing the issue of delayed Justice and now with the Lockdown, that scenario has become worse, since most of the Courts do not have the infrastructure to have video-conferencing, especially in the District and Lower Courts. The Litigants who have waited for months/ years for the cases to come up are now facing a situation, wherein the matters are being adjourned. Thus, the Litigants are majorly suffering with their fundamental right to Justice now being breached due to an unforeseen and completely unavoidable situation. The apex court has already restricted its functioning due to the lockdown and is presently hearing cases of only urgent nature through video conferencing. It was all set to commence hearing on the Sabrimala reference case, related to the scope of freedom of religion, on the re-opening of the court after the Holi break.

Litigants bearing the Brunt of non-hearing

Before the pandemic forced the Centre to take emergency steps like lockdown, the top court's hearing schedule was packed as it had assured several anti-CAA petitioners and those opposed to abrogation of provisions of Article 370 that their pleas would be heard, just after a nine judge bench would conclude the hearing in the Sabrimala case.

However, steps like social distancing led to reduction of number of functional courts in the apex court and later the lockdown forced it to conduct hearing in urgent matters only through video conferencing. n the present lockdown scenario litigants are left in doldrums, as District Courts and Lower Courts that are dependent on instructions from the higher judiciary like High Court and the Supreme court, are in the dark about the road ahead. There has only been some direction about Limitation Periods being extended for filing of cases but no major instructions on how to conduct trials in the Lower Courts. Furthermore, there has been no direction about the day to day functioning, as a result of which, most of the Lower Courts are discharging even matters at Evidence stage. In addition, these Courts had already been facing a lack of infrastructure and with this Pandemic the computer infrastructure is really scarce to support the hearings in the entire Court complexes. The district courts are highly impacted during the time of this pandemic, as these Courts cannot conduct hearings based on the Work from Home Scenario, which other businesses are following. In District Courts and Lower Courts lawyers and parties have to travel to the courts to be physically present, however, with the pandemic situation such effective hearings are not happening at all. If the staff do not resort to social distancing, the staff and litigants maybe at a big risk of contracting the COVID 19 Virus and hence it is important to adhere to social distancing in a major way to help control the spread of the virus. Therefore, no effective hearings are taking place, as litigants are not even being allowed to enter Courts and the dates are just displayed outside the Court complexes.

Therefore, the District Courts and Lower Courts are just adjourning or discharging causing delayed justice and prejudice to the Fundamental rights of the litigants. We therefore need a proper policy that will help deal with this pandemic situation, else litigants are not going to be left with much of an option but to just wait for months till the situation normalises. Given the current scenario of the pandemic it looks like it will be months before the whole situation stabilises.

A Reality Check of our system

The Supreme Court is exploring ways to set up more virtual courts to ensure that the lockdown and apprehensions over the spread of Covid-19 do not adversely impact timely delivery of justice. With the extension of the national lockdown and likelihood of a graded lifting of the lockdown, the apex court is working towards making virtual litigation a reality, said people with knowledge of the matter.

Currently, the Supreme Court holds three virtual courts through videoconferencing to hear a few urgent matters. The SC hopes to increase the number of virtual courts so that more cases can be taken up by more judges.

The COVID 19 pandemic has brought to light a need for an increased use of technology in our system and provision of more technology friendly infrastructure to even the lower Courts. Many of the High Courts have implemented technological processes for hearing urgent matters, like video conferencing however not all  court rooms in the High court are able to go on with video conferencing, as the volume of litigation is much higher than the available infrastructure. Some tribunals have initiated E-filing but the Infrastructure is still not fully set up to take the load of physical filing considering the volume of filing that takes place in all our Courts. In a way this pandemic has brought to light exactly how ill equipped we are to deal with this kind of a situation where technological advances are a must to conduct the proceedings effectively.

Requirement of the Courts in India

It is pertinent to mention that despite the Pandemic the access of a citizen to justice as a Fundamental right cannot be ignored. It would be good to have a system like some foreign courts, where the facility of online courts and telephone hearings for non-substantive hearings are being used. Also, it helps to start full-fledged E- filing on a regular basis, even if there is no pandemic kind of situation.

Courts are not able to function in the manner they usually use to do in the midst of this Corona Virus situation. Therefore, in case we start using technology it should continue even after the Pandemic is over, especially for filings and non-substantive hearings where a lot of time of the Court can be saved. This will help anytime when there is a health crisis like the Covid 19 Pandemic and it will also not hamper the fundamental right of the justice of the citizens, like it is doing at the moment with the blanket adjournments or extensions in injunctive orders.

The current crisis has only increased the pain of the litigants multifold. The need of the hour is to actively and vigorously spruce up the judicial system.