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 August 14, 2021. The following transcript is of the address delivered by Justice Muralidhar -
Justice Muralidhar extended his warm greetings to all the participants and the guests. He began his speech by making an observation about lack of eye contact in virtual court proceedings which many lawyers as well as judges missed. He briefly elaborated on the various unsaid ways in which the lawyers and judges communicate in a physical courtroom namely eye contact and body language which could not be replicated in virtual courts. Justice Muralidhar further elaborated that in virtual criminal courts, the demeanour of the witness also becomes difficult to assess during cross-examination and important physical cues can be missed out. Commenting on the functioning of courts during the pandemic, Justice S. Muralidhar was of the view that civil trials and criminal trials had missed out a lot on their objectives. Quoting the example of the state of Orissa, he noted that appeals, civil revisions, criminal revisions etc., had adapted well to the virtual scenario but trials have not progressed. This was mainly due to the lawyers’ reluctance to conduct examinations or cross-examinations through the virtual mode.
However, Justice Muralidhar asserted that technology still has a lot of advantages. He shared his personal experience from his days in Delhi, where the Karkardooma Court had undertaken a pilot project twelve years ago. The Court of the District and Sessions Judge was chosen to have cameras fitted all across the Courtroom which further connected with the police station, jail and forensic lab. Sharing his learning, he stated that the most useful aspect was with respect to the official witness where witness examination could take place from anywhere in the country.
According to Justice Muralidhar, there were several challenges that virtual courts faced in justice delivery. These were
- lack of privileged communication when the client was lodged in jail and he/she has to communicate with the lawyer;
- video remands which allowed prisoners to appear from jail without being brought to court had removed the possibility of court lockups, where prisoners could receive family members; and
- confidentiality aspect that came with serving notice physically which was not possible digitally.
He also observed that there were additional difficulties that arose when the parties to the case were not connected by the internet.
Justice Muralidhar further highlighted the differing comfort levels of lawyers arguing physically while referring to the paper as opposed to looking at a screen and arguing. Thereafter, he listed several initiatives he had introduced in the Orissa High Court while trying to promote paperless courts, e-filings, etc. His Lordship observed, “We can’t replicate every step of the process. Perhaps, we shouldn’t. We should use technology in the best possible manner, but we can’t replace what we do physically with what we do digitally.”
He concluded his address by asserting that a balance must be struck between physical and virtual proceedings - while some aspects should remain physical, some should go digital. He expressed his gratitude towards the CAN Foundation for inviting him to speak on such a pertinent topic at such turbulent times.