This Keynote Address was a part of the '1st Justice HR Khanna Memorial National Symposium' organized by CAN Foundation in collaboration with National Law University, Jodhpur & Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar on 14th August, 2021. The transcript of Justice V. Ramasubramanian's address is as follows -
Justice Ramasubramanian commenced his address with warm greetings to all the panelists and attendees of the symposium. Expressing his views on the contemporary developments in court proceedings owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, he emphasized on the efficacy of Virtual Courts in India, utilizing the National Policy and Action Plan for Implementation of Information and Communication Technology of 2005 as a focal point, and the National E-Courts Portal, launched in August 2013. In his examination of the aforesaid policies and steps taken by the Central Government, he mentioned the absence of a robust framework to regulate virtual courts, stating that “It required a pandemic for us to explore the opportunity of making courts virtual.”
Thereinafter, he continued to elucidate his observation, taking into consideration, the 103rd Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice Report of September 11, 2020, that defines virtual courts as places where all essential courtroom activities take place online. Open-endedness of the definition also allows one to make distinctions between online and virtual courts. One such inference, relying on the report, is that online courts are considered a notch above as participants need not be present simultaneously.
Justice Ramasubramanian then went on to discuss collaborative initiatives at the judicial level, mentioning work on an application called the “Integrated Criminal Justice System", that could not take off due to various reasons associated with the practicability of the same.
Justice Ramasubramian elaborated that since the COVID-19 pandemic, legal sanctity was given to virtual courts by a Supreme Court order, “ In Re: Guidelines for Court functioning through Video Conferencing during COVID-19 Pandemic ”, of April 6, 2020. High Courts were granted discretion, Model rules were circulated and District courts had to adhere to the rules formulated by their respective High Courts. The interim report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, as per Justice Ramasubramanian identified three types of digital divide in our country, namely (i) access divide which related to equipment and infrastructure; (ii) connectivity divide which related to the internet connectivity; and (iii) skills divide which related to the skills required to participate. The Report also recommended some types of cases that could be permanently redressed by virtual courts which included cases under the Motor Vehicles Act, traffic challan cases, petty offences under Section 206 of the Indian Penal Code, etc.
Justice Ramasubramanian then drew upon examples of different countries that have recognised the need to move towards virtual courts. He began by relying on the UNHRC 44/9 Resolution, which laid emphasis on the independence and impartiality of the judiciary, jurors and assessors, and the independence of lawyers. This Resolution also recognised the need for judiciaries to have sufficient resources for accountability, due process and transparency.
He further discussed the position of developed countries in this regard, placing reliance on The United Kingdom Parliament’s passage of a law called Coronavirus Act, 2020, which received royal assent on March 25, 2020. This act had introduced amendments on the use and availability of live links, civil and criminal laws and power on regulating virtual court hearings.
He then discussed developments in the United States of America, quoting the example of the Centre for Legal and Court Technology at William & Mary Law School, Virginia. The School had set up the “McGlothlin Courtroom” which served as a testing bed for the latest advances in the courtroom and legal technology. The “McGlothlin Courtroom” permitted remote appearances for judges, counsel, witnesses, interpreters, court reporters, and even jurors.
He added to the discourse by addressing the status quo in Ireland, where the Irish Courts use “Pexip Infinity'', an application where personal injury cases can be heard in a fast-track virtual mode. The unique feature of this app was that participants could join video streaming from any other video streaming platform like Skype, Zoom, Cisco, etc.
Thereafter, Justice Ramasubramian discussed how all courts in Russia were equipped with virtual court facilities via “Justice SAS” (State Automated System). Easy sharing of e-documents was common to all types of courts. A new initiative called“Justice Online” was also introduced which would ensure open and transparent courts that would be integrated with other government websites and services.
Taking the discussion further on how various countries have come up with innovative solutions regarding courtrooms, Justice Ramasubramaniam talked about China, where there was increased use of “Robo Justice”. Robo Justices refer to internet courts that ran 24 hours a day and do not require physical appearances. They also had Smart Courts where the outcome of the cases was decided by non-human AI judges with minimal human interference. China’s Supreme Court was also promoting a project called, “Similar Judgments in Similar Case” which provided for unified judgments by developing a database and which would help judges take decisions in a better and uniform way. It also reduced the risk of human subjectivity.
Lastly, he made reference to Germany, where virtual courts had been in use since 1998, to protect the identities of witnesses during criminal proceedings. According to Section 128a of the German Code of Civil Procedure (ZPO), video hearings were permitted in civil proceedings as well.
Justice Ramasubramanian inferenced that, “Switching over to virtual courts is not without issues.” He followed this with an example of recent news where the Advocate General of the State of Jharkhand had made a request to the Judge to recuse himself from a case on the ground that he had overheard a conversation between the opposing counsel and his client about the surety of a favourable decision in that court.
On a note of conclusion, he chose to refer back to the challenge of making courts accessible, relying on the example of Henry II of England who had enacted an act called “The Assize of Clarendon” in 1166, under which courts were moved to various towns creating a unified court system 'common' to the country by incorporating and elevating local custom to the national level. Towards the end, he shared a video compilation that included various incidents that can occur in a virtual hearing, and thanked the CAN Foundation for inviting him to the Symposium.