The Supreme Court of India, on October 6, 2023, issued a directive to all High Courts in Sarvesh Mathur v. The Registrar General of Punjab and Haryana High Court| W.P.(Crl.) No. 351/2023 , urging them to ensure that no member of the legal community is denied access to video conferencing facilities or hybrid hearings. The Apex Court granted a two-week period for the implementation of this order.
The bench, consisting of Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice J.B. Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra, issued additional directives pertaining to video conferencing facilities in High Courts and Tribunals.
Key Directives by the Supreme Court:
1. Access to Video Conferencing: The Supreme Court directed High Courts to provide video conference facility or hybrid facility access to all members of the bar. After two weeks, High Courts should refrain from denying access to these facilities to any advocate.
2. Internet Facilities: High Courts were instructed to ensure that adequate internet facilities, including Wi-Fi, are available free of charge to all advocates and litigants appearing before them.
3. Visibility in Cause Lists: Links for video conferencing must be included in the cause list of the respective court, eliminating the need for a separate application to appear through virtual mode.
4. Standard Operating Procedure (SOP): All High Courts are required to establish a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) to allow litigants access to hybrid and video conferencing hearings. The High Courts should implement this SOP within four weeks.
5. Internet Connectivity in North East: The Court expressed concern about low internet connectivity in North Eastern states, hindering the provision of video conferencing facilities in the HCs there. It directed the Union Ministry of Information Technology to ensure internet connectivity for all courts in the North East, enabling online hearings.
CJI Chandrachud’s Statements During the Hearing:
During the hearing, Chief Justice DY Chandrachud expressed disappointment in several High Courts that have not provided adequate video conferencing facilities, despite funds being allocated by the Union for this purpose. He noted that although the Indian government had allocated substantial funds, some High Courts remained indifferent to technological advancements. He stated, “The government of India has forwarded Rs 700,000 crores, but I’m sorry to say that some High Courts are tech indifferent.” CJI Chandrachud emphasized that technology is an integral part of the legal system and urged judges to adapt to it, asserting, “If you want to be a judge, you have to be tech-friendly.”
Criticizing Specific High Courts:
CJI Chandrachud criticized specific High Courts for their lack of commitment to technology adoption. He mentioned that the Allahabad High Court had completely shut down its infrastructure, and he expressed disappointment in the Bombay High Court for disbanding its video conferencing facilities. He questioned why the Bombay High Court had taken such a step, considering the city’s challenges with travel. CJI Chandrachudemphasized that technology was not a matter of choice but an essential component of the legal system.
He contrasted the situation by praising High Courts such as Kerala and Orissa for their proactive efforts in adopting technology. He commended Kerala High Court’s performance in technological advancements, noting that it was among the better High Courts in this regard.
Tribunals and Hybrid Hearings:
The Court also inquired about virtual hearing facilities in Tribunals across India. Additional Solicitor General KM Natarajinformed the Court that the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission (NCDRC) had been conducting hybrid hearings, and the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had implemented hybrid hearings in Delhi and regional benches. However, he pointed out that the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) required additional infrastructure.
As a result, the Court directed a meeting between the Ministry of Corporate Finance and the President of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) within the next week, along with a similar meeting with the NCLT chairperson within two weeks. The Court mandated that both NCLT and NCLAT take all necessary measures to ensure the availability of hybrid hearings to litigants within four weeks.
Background and CJI Chandrachud’s Advocacy for Hybrid Hearings:
The Supreme Court had taken up this matter in response to a writ petition challenging the Punjab and Haryana High Court’s discontinuation of hybrid hearing options. Chief Justice DY Chandrachud has been a vocal advocate for hybrid hearings, emphasizing their importance and the need for judges to adapt to technology. In February 2023, CJI Chandrachud expressed his concerns about High Courts discontinuing virtual hearings despite significant investments in e-courts infrastructure.
He reiterated his stance In May 2023 when he wrote to all Chief Justices regarding the status of hybrid hearings. This recent directive further solidifies the importance of technology adoption in the Indian judiciary, aiming to provide wider access and convenience to advocates and litigants.