Turning a Corner With Live Streaming of Constitutional Matters
On September 27, 2022, India’s Supreme Court began to live-stream hearings of all matters taken up by its constitutional benches, making them fully accessible to the public in real-time. This follows a decision that was first taken in September 2018. Although the pandemic caused a delay in the implementation of this decision, it is noteworthy that this decision reportedly had the support of all judges (including CJIs). This speaks to the judiciary’s willingness to adapt to change and play its role in strengthening India’s democratic traditions and enhancing the efficiency of its justice delivery system, which bears a disproportionately huge burden given India’s demography.
By and large, courtroom proceedings around the world are not permitted to be legally recorded, let alone broadcast. This decision by India’s highest court of law makes us one of the few countries (if not the only one) where certain types of hearings are now open to audiences worldwide. I believe this is a good move that has a number of benefits, although given the increasingly digital world we live in, there are also some downside risks.
A key malaise that has long beset India’s justice delivery system is the tendency of lawyers of one or both parties to seek frequent adjournments as a matter of routine strategy. While this may be legitimate in some cases (e.g., awaiting evidence, unavailability of witnesses, etc.), it is also blatantly used as a tactic to cover for lack of preparation, to buy time, or simply delay justice delivery. Not for nothing has the Indian judiciary been accused of abetting “taareekh pe taareekh” (moving from one date of hearing to another with no substantive progress towards a verdict).
Allowing the public to view proceedings will help ordinary citizens understand the process better, and thus build more confidence in the judiciary. With the performance and reputations of at least some advocates under public glare, we can expect that they will be better prepared to argue matters. Advocates on Record (AOR) will expect to be fully briefed in time, forcing lawyers advising the parties to do their homework thoroughly. All this will hopefully contribute to reducing the pendency of cases because neither party (or their lawyers) will want to be seen as the ones responsible for delaying justice delivery.
The decision to live-stream matters being heard by constitutional benches will have other benefits as well. Many clients who are part of multi-party matters, class action suits or public interest litigations don’t always get updated with accurate information about what transpired. Livestreaming provides access to clients who are not in a position to physically attend the hearing; they can issue new instructions to their lawyers if necessary. This is important because matters that are typically heard by constitutional benches are those that have far-reaching implications for Indian society and the country.
Law students and young professionals at the start of their careers can learn courtcraft by watching experienced advocates/senior advocates and judges in action (how they question advocates to identify irrelevant arguments, time-wasting tactics, etc.). This will be of particular advantage to aspiring lawyers from outside the National Capital Region, for whom traveling to Delhi or interning with Supreme Court advocates is not affordable or otherwise possible.
However, in the increasingly digital world we live in, such live-streaming also has some potential risks. Social media can be misused to post partial or incorrect information, and this can trigger law and order risks. Social media may be used by vested interests to malign advocates or members of the judiciary, which can vitiate not just the proceedings, but also public perception. There is also the risk of hackers, who can disrupt the streaming in various ways.
Open dialogue, transparency and fairness are basic tenets of a healthy democracy. This major step taken by India’s Supreme Court has the potential to improve India by enhancing the citizenry’s understanding of and appreciation for the rule of law. It can also raise the standards of the next generation of lawyers. Constitutional benches take up weighty matters of national importance, so I hope this step toward ushering in greater transparency will help fill the dangerous cracks that have emerged in our pluralistic country’s social fabric over the last 75 years.
By and large, courtroom proceedings around the world are not permitted to be legally recorded, let alone broadcast. This decision by India’s highest court of law makes us one of the few countries (if not the only one) where certain types of hearings are now open to audiences worldwide.