Pandemic underscores need for online court hearing

Legal minds call for adopting Justice Isa’s proposal for using video link to adjudicate

Hasnaat Malik May 07, 2020
PHOTO: AFP

ISLAMABAD: In legal circles, there is a growing debate about the possibility of adopting video link as a means to conduct case hearings amid coronavirus pandemic as the United States and India start online courts to protect judges, lawyers and citizens from the contagion and to avoid pendency of cases.

According to a fortnight report of the Supreme Court, 44,017 cases were pending in the court till April 30. More than 2,000 cases have been added to the backlog during tenure of incumbent Chief Justice of Pakistan Gulzar Ahmed.

However, institution of cases has also decreased in the last couple of months apparently due to the pandemic. Currently, all SC judges are sitting in benches to hear cases. However, each bench is hearing only a few cases.

One section of lawyer believes that instead of focusing on suo motu proceedings to examine the executive actions to fight COVID-19, the apex court should consider different options as to how the pendency of cases can be reduced while also securing health of judges, lawyers and litigants.

Supreme Court Bar Association President Syed Qalb-i-Hassan said if the situation did not change soon then the financial condition of many lawyers will become precarious. Even SCBA has given financial aid to 65 lawyers all over the country.

He said the apex court should evolve a mechanism to hear cases through video link after Eidul Fitr.

Hassan referred to the SC’s April 16 order wherein Justice Qazi Faez Isa proposed a mechanism for hearing cases via video link in view of the contagious disease.

“The matter was referred to CJ Gulzar Ahmed for approval. However, despite passage of three weeks, there is no update as whether the apex court will approve the proposal or not,” he said.

Justice Isa had proposed that each courtroom or bench be provided with a WiFi-connected cellphone and the number of the cellular devices be mentioned in the cause list and on the SC website.

The proposal also suggested that applications such as Skype, WhatsApp, Telegram or any other suitable video conferencing platform be installed in the said Supreme Court cell phone and the counsel should also be asked to install the same application in their devices.

After identity of the counsel is verified, cases may be heard by the use of the said video-conferencing application. The proposal suggested maintaining transparency and openness during proceedings and that the screen of the court cell phone may be mirrored on TV sets installed in every courtroom.

“The possibility of preserving the recording of the court proceedings (for six months) be explored,” the proposal stated. The judge also recommended that this task could be assigned to the apex court’s information and technology department.

“However, before using the proposed system, the IT wing should ensure successful trial runs.

“The Pakistan Bar Council (PBC) and the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), offices of Attorney General for Pakistan and advocate generals and prosecutor generals to be given a demonstration of the workability of the proposed system and consider their suggestion,” it said.

Law & Justice Commission of Pakistan Secretary Raheem Awan told The Express Tribune that a meeting of automation committee will be held on May 13. “The apex court has already started hearing of cases through video links connectivity. However this e-court system is working in Supreme Court Registries.”

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