Restrictions on court hearings lawful, says Supreme Court

Context

  • Recently the Supreme Court deemed all restrictions on people from entering, attending or taking part in court hearings, imposed recently in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, as lawful.

About the hearing

  • Invoking its extraordinary Constitutional powers: The court invoked its extraordinary Constitutional powers under Article 142 to step away from the convention of open court hearings. The open court system ensures transparency in administration of justice.
  • Reason for such action: The court made it clear that public health takes precedence over conventions. Open court hearings would mean a congregation of a large number of people. This would prove detrimental to the fight against the virus.
  • The  restrictions were in tune with the social distancing norms and best public health practices advocated to contain the contagion.
  • Guidelines on videoconferencing:
    • The apex court bench assembled to suo motu streamline the videoconferencing guidelines for courts. 
    • In a series of directions, the apex court allowed the High Courts to decide the modalities for the temporary transition to the use of videoconferencing technologies in their respective States. 
    • District courts in each State would adopt the mode of videoconferencing prescribed by the respective High Courts. 
    • Helplines would be set up to receive and rectify technical complaints.
    • The courts should make available video conferencing facilities for litigants who do not have it or appoint an amicus curiae.
    • In no case evidence shall be recorded without the mutual consent of both the parties by videoconferencing. 
      • If it is necessary to record evidence in a courtroom, the presiding officer shall ensure that appropriate distance is maintained between any two individuals in the court.

Balancing the challenges posed by the outbreak and constitutional commitments

  • Access to justice is fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy envisaged by the Constitution of India. 
  • The challenges occasioned by the outbreak of COVID-19 have to be addressed while preserving the constitutional commitment to ensuring the delivery of and access to justice to those who seek it.
  • Thus, the judiciary would have to improvise and continue to bank heavily on videoconferencing technologies in the wake of this unprecedented and extraordinary outbreak of a pandemic.
  • Indian courts have been proactive in embracing advancement in technology in judicial proceedings.
  • Every individual and institution is expected to cooperate in the implementation of measures designed to reduce the transmission of the virus. The scaling down of conventional operations within the precincts of courts is a measure in that direction as this is not a matter of discretion but of duty. 

About Article 142

  • It provides a unique power to the Supreme Court, to do complete justice between the parties. 
  • Article 142 provides discretionary power to the Supreme Court.
  • This means where at times law or statute may not provide a remedy, the Court can extend itself to put a dispute to a soothing end in a manner which would benefit the facts of the case.
  • Recently, it was also used during the Ayodhya judgment, making the first such case where it was invoked for a civil dispute over an immovable property that involved private parties.

Article 142(1) states that

  • The Supreme Court in the exercise of its jurisdiction may pass such decree or make such order as is necessary for doing complete justice in any cause or matter pending before it, and any decree so passed or order so made shall be enforceable throughout the territory of India in such manner as may be prescribed by or under any law made by Parliament and, until provision in that behalf is so made, in such manner as the President may by order prescribe.