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Delhi HC bars journalists, public from attending online video hearings

The Delhi High Court has effectively barred any public viewing or attendance, including by journalists, of all online court proceedings. Court proceedings are typically open to the accredited journalists, apart from registered lawyers and court officials, the parties involved, and any other person who can justify their presence. In an order passed on September 21, Justice Suresh Kumar Kait directed the court registry to provide hearing links to only those directly concerned with the case, and not to other people or journalists.

The court registry is permitted to provide the links only to the concerned advocates and investigating officers, and to people specifically directed to appear by the court. The plaintiff/defendant can appear if a petition is filed for quashing. Advocates can only share the link with senior advocates or lawyers appearing on their behalf.

The direction was passed in Satyam Kumar Sah v. Narcotics Control Bureau. During a hearing of this case, “a very unpleasant situation” occurred wherein “certain unidentified persons joined the proceedings through VC and could be heard talking continuously”, creating “hindrance in hearing the submissions of counsels and proper justice dispensation,” Justice Kait said in the order.

Physical court functioning has been restricted since March 25, when the nation went into it first COVID-19 lockdown. The Delhi High Court had resumed physical hearings this month after five months, but several lawyers insisted on that their cases be heard on video conference. The court began had begun physical hearings on a rotational basis, with different benches assembling on different days to avoid crowding in court premises. Even for such hearings, only advocates with listed matters and those representing their own cases were allowed inside the court.

In contrast, the Kerala High Court makes the Zoom link of every upcoming hearing public, wherein anybody is permitted to attend. When the nationwide lockdown was imposed at the end of March for nearly three months, most courts, at least temporarily shifted, to online video hearings, and subsequently faced challenges in conducting them.

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The shift, however, has not been seamless. From inappropriately dressed lawyers to audio disturbances to smoking during a proceeding, the virtual courts have witnessed a lot. Even the (in)famous contempt proceedings against Prashant Bhushan got disrupted due to power cuts in his counsel’s house. That is nothing to say about family members and pets who wander in and out of frames during proceedings.

J&K had formed committee to look into court connectivity

However, the case of Jammu and Kashmir, which does not have unfettered internet access is unique. After the nationwide lockdown was imposed, the court was only hearing exceptionally urgent matters online, according to Greater Kashmir. As the lockdown continued in May, judges of the Jammu and Kashmir High Court were hearing arguments from lawyers who did not have internet access over landlines and mobile phones. When lawyers were unable to connect with Vidyo, the video conferencing app used by the court and the Supreme Court, they switched to WhatsApp video calls.

When there was a spike of coronavirus cases in the new union territory in early July, Srinagar was placed under partial lockdown on July 13, rendering lawyers unable to attend the resumed physical hearings. That day, unable to conduct hearings, a bench of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Sanjay Dhar summoned Jammu and Kashmir home secretary Shaleen Kabra, who also issues all of the internet restriction orders in the union territory. On July 13 itself, multiple hearings for Justice Mittal’s bench were deferred as the concerned parties and their lawyers could not appear before the court (four instances of this are here, here, here, and here).

Justice Mittal pointed out that it was “impossible to have even a bare semblance of a hearing” since many parties could not show up, “we have struggled to have virtual/or audio connectivity with the amicus curiae and the several counsels appearing before us … Even the learned Advocate General has expressed grave difficulty in joining the hearing.” On July 20, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court constituted a committee headed by the state home secretry Shaleen Kabra to examine difficulties in e-connectivity in both wings Srinagar and Jammu of the high court, the Leaflet reported.

According to Kabra, the difficulties in the e-connectivity were leaseline issues, the need to enhance lease line bandwidth, optimal utilization of the software, distribution of bandwidth amongst different users, which has not been optimally effected. Additionally, he said another reason for poor connectivity is the “possible misuse of the available bandwidth”, per The Leaflet.

Following his submission, the division consisting of Chief Justice Gita Mittal and Justice Sanjay Dhar constituted a committee to carry out a proper audit of the facilities. The other members in the committee include:

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  • Shahzad Azeem, Registrar (IT), Jammu and Kashmir High Court
  • Abhay Kumar, SIO, National Informatics Centre, Jammu and Kashmir
  • Sanjeev Tyagi, Nodal Officer, BSNL, Jammu and Kashmir
  • Director of the National Institute of Electronics and Information Technology (NIELIT), Jammu or an expert nominated by him from NIELIT.

The committee’s reports were ordered to be placed before the chairperson of the IT Committee of the high court on the next hearing, which was scheduled for July 23.

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