India dispatches: ‘the virtual courts system must be strengthened’ Dispatches
© JURIST (Neelabh Bist)
India dispatches: ‘the virtual courts system must be strengthened’

JURIST EXCLUSIVE – As India’s COVID-19 infection rate continues to fall from its grotesque levels in early June, India correspondent Neelabh Bist takes a look at some of the impacts that the second wave of COVID-19 has had on India, its legal profession, and its court system. Still he notes that with vaccination levels very low and long waits for those who have already received one dose of vaccine, a third wave is coming…

The second wave of Covid-19 has subsided for now but it has left its indelible mark on the lives of the people of India. With every passing day Indians realize that their lives are never going to be the same after the end of this pandemic. Many have lost their loved ones, several children are orphaned and families tragically affected. Truly, India after the pandemic will be a seat of many reforms.

Amidst the inevitable change, there have been important policy decisions taken by the government. In response to a Public Interest Litigation seeking compensation of Rs. 4 lakhs to family members of those who have lost their lives due to Covid-19, the Central Government denied paying ex gratia for such Covid deaths making it clear to the Apex Court that the Centre has already taken measures to help the needy persons to deal with their losses due to Covid-19.

Last month, Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi announced financial assistance and free education under the PM Cares Scheme for children who have lost both parents or a surviving parent, legal guardian or adoptive parents due to Covid-19. The Central Government also extended pension coverage under the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC) scheme to all registered dependents of those who died due to Covid-19.

On the economic front, India is gravely suffering. Back in March 2020, India saw a sharp surge in the rate of unemployment during its first lockdown. The second wave only worsened the situation by hitting the country harder than last year. According to the think-tank ‘Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy’, the second wave alone left 7 million people jobless.

With respect to the legal field, Covid-19 has hit hard with many lawyers getting affected by reduced work and earnings due to the pandemic as only urgent cases were being taken up in courts for virtual hearing. The number of cases listed for hearings were reduced in virtual hearings, thus limiting work for lawyers. The junior lawyers of the bar suffered the most. The State Bar Councils and Bar Associations had made efforts to help the lawyers in need by coming up with several schemes to provide financial aid to the lawyers, including extending help to meet medical expenses in case of Covid-19 infections, but it was still not enough. Bar Council of Delhi also purchased oxygen concentrators and cylinders to help members in case of an emergency. The Bar Council of India filed a petition before the Apex Court last year, seeking financial assistance for lawyers in the wake of the pandemic, however a decision on the same is still pending.

However, the second wave has helped drive home a very important fact that the future of the country, which includes the judiciary, lies in the virtual setup. Whereas, both lawyers and litigants had held fast to the belief that after the first wave things will return to normal and physical courts will start refunctioning, the second wave has washed off this misplaced hope and necessitated the lawyers to learn the technical know-how of operating their gadgets for legal usage. Since March 2020, the Courts in India, including the Supreme Court, have completely gone virtual in their hearings. Many legal luminaries have professed their views on the same and speak in unison when they claim that even though physical court hearings cannot be done away with, keeping in mind the technological integration in the judicial system, the virtual courts system must be strengthened. Supreme court Judge and Chairperson of the Supreme Court e-committee Justice D Y Chandrachud, recommended that the use of technology in courtrooms must be institutionalized even post-Covid. He emphasized on the digitization of courts, including e-filing.

Virtual courts hold the advantage of reducing the environmental effect of litigation. It also leads to cost savings as it cuts down the need for travel of the lawyers and litigants to the courts. It also gives the parties flexibility with respect to the seat of hearings and easier access to court orders online. It seems that the post pandemic courts of India are going to be a healthy balance of physical and virtual systems. However, the question that remains here is – is India, where the Bar Council itself stated that upto 90% of the lawyers are not adept with technology, ready for this technological revolution?  Whereas, commendable attempts have been made by various state bar councils, they have not yet proven to be very effective.

Nevertheless, the selected 10% who were able to easily access the Courts, ensured that the Courts in the country remain the constant vigilante catering to the basic human rights of its citizens. The High Courts are suo moto putting restrictions on large gatherings at religious shrines and melas. The High Court of Uttarakhand recently voiced its concern and proposed for the postponement or cancellation of the annual Char Dham Yatra (a holy pilgrimage for the Hindus) organized by the state of Uttarakhand. The court also encouraged a live streaming of the Char Dham shrines taking into consideration the religious sentiments of the people.

However, all said and done, the path forward for India is not an easy one. The Director of All India Institute of Medical Sciences has already warned the country that a third wave of Covid-19 pandemic in India is inevitable. And unfortunately, many Indians are working their best to help realise this prophecy by failing to adhere to Covid protocol of wearing masks and maintaining social distance. But on a positive note, the vaccination drive has swung to a higher gear. This comes after the Centre has changed the vaccination policy in the country by taking over the responsibility of vaccinating the population from the states. However, with a population of 1380000000  (emphasis on the zeros), the country has only seen vaccine coverage of 4%  of its population. With this fact in mind, it’s only a question of forestalling the third wave rather than preventing it altogether.