New Delhi, October, 2023 – The Supreme Court of India has issued a landmark directive mandating hybrid hearings in all High Courts across the country, in a significant step towards modernizing the legal landscape. However, while emphasizing the importance of hybrid hearings, the Supreme Court has expressed its concerns regarding the lack of uniform Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in High Courts. The absence of standardized procedures for electronic access to hearings has created confusion and inconsistencies.
The bench responsible for this directive comprises Chief Justice DY Chandrachud, Justice J.B. Pardiwala, and Justice Manoj Misra. In their collective wisdom, they have noted the need for a clear and consistent approach to electronic access, urging High Courts to establish uniform SOPs to ensure seamless access to justice.
In addition to addressing the issue of SOPs, the Supreme Court has criticized the presence of age-based restrictions within the current SOPs, allowing hybrid mode hearings only for advocates and parties-in-person aged 65 or above. This arbitrary age limit, as per the Supreme Court’s perspective, poses a potential barrier to younger lawyers and goes against the overarching goal of enhancing accessibility to legal proceedings through technology.
Inconsistent Access to Electronic Hearings
The Supreme Court’s directive comes in response to concerns about the inconsistent access to electronic hearings prevalent in various High Courts. The order highlights the absence of standardized SOPs, leading to confusion and disparities in the application process. In some instances, litigants and lawyers are required to submit applications for electronic access several days in advance, with some High Courts mandating up to three days’ notice. This practice, as viewed by the Supreme Court, creates unnecessary barriers and impedes swift access to justice.
The Supreme Court’s order aptly points out, “In most High Courts, the problem is compounded by the absence of a uniform SOP which brings clarity to the manner in which access to the electronic mode of hearing can be obtained. An application for electronic access has to be submitted well in advance, in certain cases, three days before the date of commencement of the hearing.”
This critique underscores the imperative need for standardized procedures that facilitate access to electronic hearings in a streamlined and efficient manner. Clarity and consistency are paramount to ensuring that technology serves as an aid to justice, not a hindrance.
Age-Based Restrictions Criticized
An equally significant facet of the Supreme Court’s directive is its critique of age-based restrictions found within the current SOPs of certain High Courts. These restrictions mandate that hybrid mode hearings are only available to advocates and parties-in-person aged 65 or above. The Supreme Court has strongly criticized this arbitrary age limit, stating that it has the potential to unfairly disadvantage younger lawyers and limit access to technology primarily to senior members of the legal profession.
The Court’s viewpoint on this matter is unambiguous, as expressed in its order: “The arbitrariness of the existing SOPs is also borne out by rules such as hearing being allowed in hybrid mode for advocates/parties-in-person who are 65 years of age or above. The age restriction would unfairly disadvantage younger lawyers and restrict access to technology only in the hands of the seniors at the Bar. Such criteria do not bear any nexus to the aim of using technology to increase access to courtrooms.”
Embracing Hybrid Hearings
While addressing these concerns, the Supreme Court has also set forth a series of recommendations aimed at promoting efficient and accessible electronic hearings. The Court has directed High Courts to provide adequate internet facilities, including Wi-Fi, free of charge to all advocates and litigants appearing before the High Courts.
Furthermore, the Supreme Court has stressed the importance of including links available through video conferencing in the cause list of the respective courts, thereby eliminating the need for a separate application to appear through the virtual mode. This move towards simplifying the process is expected to enhance accessibility and expedite the transition to electronic hearings.
In a significant push for standardization and clarity, the Supreme Court has urged all High Courts to establish a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for litigants to avail access to hybrid and video conferencing hearings within four weeks. This directive represents a pivotal step in ensuring that technology is harnessed as a tool for broadening the reach of the legal system, rather than creating barriers for litigants and lawyers.
The Supreme Court’s directive for uniform SOPs and the elimination of age-based restrictions in electronic hearings underscores the significance of evolving the legal ecosystem in response to the digital age. These steps align with the global trend of harnessing technology to enhance accessibility, efficiency, and transparency within the legal domain, ultimately reinforcing the foundational principles of justice in the digital era. The legal community and society at large will be keenly watching the implementation of these directives, which hold the potential to redefine the way justice is delivered in the modern age.