As Kautilya said in the Arthashastra, and during that time, when judges delivered a judgment, they did so in an open court. From then until now, the visual setting of the justice delivery mechanism hasn’t changed much. While the Indian legal system is built on the concept of open courts, which means that the proceedings are open to all members of the public, the reality is different. On any given day, only a handful of people can be physically present and are allowed in the courtroom.
Why shouldn’t the legal system benefit from technology?
- While the courts are now opting for digitisation, with online records of all cases, a provision for filing FIRs online, an automated system of case rotation, etc.
- In the light of these technological advancements, why shouldn’t millions of people be allowed to watch the rich deliberations that transpire in the halls of justice?
- Live streaming of court cases is not needed for all the cases.
- Live-streaming is neither called for in all types of matters nor in all courts.
Why live streaming of the cases?
- The emphasis is to make those matters that are of great public importance available for all to see.
- Therefore, matters which have a privacy dimension, such as family matters or criminal matters, or matters with legal procedural intricacies, such as most trial court matters, are out of its scope.
- But matters which have a bearing on important public interest issues such as the constitutionality of the Aadhaar scheme, or the legality of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code all of which are pending before the Supreme Court, should be available for all to watch.
- Further, to promote transparency, live-streaming has been allowed for both Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha proceedings since 2004.
- Similarly, the recording of videos in the highest courts in Canada and Australia, the International Court of Justice, shows that this exercise is neither novel nor so difficult.
Audio and video recordings
- Instead of live-streaming, audio and video recordings of court proceedings would reform the administration of justice.
- These can be used at the time of review or appeal of a case, especially when the submissions of a lawyer are not properly recorded in the judgment, or a judge is acting in a whimsical manner.
- The Supreme Court had already passed an order in Pradyuman Bisht v. Union of India (2017) directing all High Courts to ensure CCTVs and audio and video recordings in subordinate courts.
- This order should be extended to the Supreme Court and High Courts, and a copy of the recordings should be made available to the parties concerned and to the general public under the Right to Information Act.
Comparisons across countries
- While the logic employed by those arguing for live-streaming of Supreme Court proceedings has force, the Indian Supreme Court may well be unique in terms of the cases it takes on, and the logistics involved in setting up cameras within it.
- The Canadian Supreme Court may well have successfully experimented with recording its hearings, but it had an average case load of 500-600 from 2006 to 2016. In each of these 10 years, it decided between 60 and 80 of these cases.
- The Constitutional Court of South Africa, where this measure has been proposed, decided an average of 20 cases in its first decade (1995-2005) and delivered 51 judgments in 2017. Both courts sit as one body.
- On the other hand, the Indian Supreme Court on any given day is actually 12-13 panels of judges hearing cases simultaneously, and had more than 55,000 pending cases as of November 2017.
- It issues a far higher number of judgments than any comparable court. Given the pressure, the judgments issued tend to be hurriedly reasoned and poorly articulated.
- Lawyers and judges before the Supreme Court tend to rely extensively on an ‘oral’ culture where much less emphasis is placed on written briefs and documents or on thorough preparation in advance of hearings. Lawyers in India arguably get more time to argue their cases than in any other jurisdiction.
- Given these realities, it is not clear that televising the proceedings would entail any great benefit to the public, even as it runs the risk of adversely affecting court proceedings.
More fundamental reforms
- Before we think of cameras in courts, more fundamental reforms need to be effected.
- These include greater reliance on written briefs and the significance accorded to them, page limits for briefs (and, perhaps, also for judgments), time limits for oral arguments (and for judges to issue judgments), and a greater emphasis on preparation in advance.
- The judiciary must also employ a press officer to liaise with the media, and issue simultaneously one or two page summaries of its judgments to facilitate greater public understanding.
Why is it important?
- To educate common people on how the judiciary functions is a strong reasons in favour of allowing live-streaming of court proceedings.
- It presents a hope for the Indian legal system to finally deliver on its promise to empower the masses, not be scared of them.