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How will live-streaming court hearings change the way the Indian justice system works?

While Many Believe This Will Make Courts More Transparent, Some Fear That This Will Lead To Judicial Populism.

Constitution bench of Supreme Court hearing a petition. | YouTube

In December 2017, Swapnil Tripathi, a fourth-year law student, filed a petition in the Supreme Court challenging the rule that disallowed interns from entering the apex court on Mondays and Fridays – when fresh matters are heard. Tripathi, who could not observe proceedings in cases on which he assisted as an intern because of this rule, asked the court to create a live-streaming room in the court where interns could watch the cases.

In September 2018, the court, after hearing this matter along with other petitions asking for the Supreme Court’s proceedings to be broadcast to the general public, allowed live-streaming of hearings. It reasoned that streaming would bring transparency and accountability to the courtroom process.

Four years later, in September, the Supreme Court put this judgement to practice. It allowed live-streaming of constitutional benches – those with more than five judges and dealing with important questions of law. With it, India joined the league of a few countries that stream their proceedings on the internet.

This move has set off a heated debate. On one hand, live-stream has been hailed as a revolutionary step, that will open the doors of the court to the public while also benefitting the legal community. However, there are some who are sceptical. They argue that live-streaming proceedings will lead judges and lawyers to appeal to populism and hampering the legal process

Starting the trend

In the 2018 judgement, the court laid down the basic principles for live-streaming cases. However, it was Covid-19 that prompted courts to actually implement the broadcasting of cases. Since courts were already working through video conferencing, there was a push for making the feed available to the general public. In October 2020, Gujarat High Court became the first High Court in the country to live-stream its proceedings. Soon five other High Courts followed suit.

Four High Courts – Gujarat, Karnataka, Orissa and Patna, are now actively streaming on YouTube. Madhya Pradesh is planning to live-stream all court proceedings in the state.

There are rules put in place regarding the copyright and circulation of these videos. Courts are also prohibited from live-streaming certain kinds of matters, such as matrimonial cases, sexual offences, cases that may promote enmity, for instance.

In a way, broadcasting the court is an extension of live-tweeting and real-time reporting of court cases, a phenomenon from the last few years. “The transition is not abrupt,” legal academic Anuj Bhuwania pointed out. “This move takes live-tweeting to a different level.”

Better access

Live-streaming is widely seen as a move that will make judges more accountable, promote access to justice and understanding of the courts among the general public. Many legal commentators also see it as an important step in maintaining archives of courtroom proceedings and helping academics, lawyers and law students who study and research the law.

Having access to live feed is also helpful for better reporting of the court. “It has made our reporting more accurate and precise,” said Manu Sebastian, managing editor of legal news website LiveLaw. “We can verify and recheck things.” Courts are often crowded and may be physically inaccessible, making reporting difficult.

It has also made their work more flexible. “[For instance,] we fully covered the hijab matter using the YouTube link,” said Murali Krishnan, an editor at legal news website Bar and Bench. The ban on hijab in educational institutes heard before the Karnataka High Court in February had generated national interest and celebrated wide viewership. At one point, more than 30,000 people were watching the proceeding live. Within three days, hearings had between one lakh to four lakh views, compared to the average of three to four thousand views on other hearings.

Litigants might also be more involved in cases because of live-streaming. “It increases the accountability and responsibility of lawyers,” said Asim Pandya, the President of the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association. Lawyers cannot make any “excuses to the client” or “lie about whether they were present [for a hearing] or not” since clients can now watch these cases.

Pandering to public?

However, there are some concerns about how live-streaming will affect the behaviour of lawyers and judges.

The cameras inside Gujarat High Court have made “the atmosphere of the court a little serious” and have put judges “under pressure”, said Pandya.

“Now the judge is constantly worried if something is said in lighter vein, it might be construed otherwise,” he said.

This may be a good thing sometimes, retired Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Govind Mathur explained. “But other times, there might be pressure on them and they will not be able to say things they want to during a hearing,” he said.

With this consciousness, judges and lawyers may treat the courtroom as a public spectacle. For instance, in a case where the lawyer knows that the case is lost, they will now “address the entire world” through their arguments, Bhuwania said.

Said Supreme Court advocate on record Vikram Hegde, “There are also apprehensions for lawyers who may argue unpopular causes.”

This, some fear would go against the ideal role of judges in a democracy. “The entire point of the judiciary is to stay away from externalities and not be affected by politics or popular culture,” said Chimni.

However, this trend already happening with real-time media reporting of courts, commentators point it. “Sometimes, they [judges and lawyers] make oral observations and hyperbolic statements that will make headlines,” Sebastian said, observing that this trend was noticeable in high-profile cases.

“The culture of public interest litigation increased as more media got involved,” said Delhi-based lawyer Abhik Chimni said, talking about how many lawyers have started filing cases of “public interest” for popularity. “It has become a means through which you [lawyers] could find fame.”

Media sensationalising?

Another apprehension is that short acontextual snippets going viral, giving the public a wrong impression about how the courtroom works. After several High Courts came online, there has been a spate of dedicated channels on YouTube, editing and posting videos from the courtroom. Several of these videos have become extremely popular.

“Some High Court judges have become YouTube stars,” Sebastian said. “Several of their videos are getting circulated.”

For instance, in June, a clip from Patna High Court became viral where the judge castigated a civil servant for not wearing the proper dress code in court. It garnered crores of views and became a point of debate on social media. Another snippet that became popular was where a Karnataka High Court judge was complaining that a judge had threatened to transfer him if he ruled against the state’s Anti Corruption Bureau. There are several other videos, of judges scolding police officers or being kind to a litigant, that are doing the rounds of the internet.

Such videos appeal to the public. “When a High Court judge or Supreme Court judge talks roughly to a public official, people also enjoy that,” said Ravitosh Dubey, who runs a popular legal YouTube channel LawChakra.

Dubey, who started his channel in April, has got more than 80,000 subscribers and 1.4 crore views on his channel. “I didn’t imagine that this will have so much hype around it,” he said, “Maybe it is new, that is also the reason. Maybe with time, it will fizzle out.”

Some lawyers have complained about such videos. In July, the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association wrote to the Gujarat High Court Chief Justice complaining that they got “four-five complaints on a daily basis” of snippets from the court’s live-streaming uploaded online. The majority of them were “taken out of context and uploaded with highly inappropriate tag lines and hash tags”. Some news channels were also “sensationalising live-streaming of proceedings”, it claimed.

In the hijab case in Karnataka, one of the lawyers representing Muslim students had asked the streaming to be stopped, arguing that observations were being taken out of context. But his plea was declined.

A few Supreme Court judges have also complained about their statements being taken out of context and the public getting a wrong idea about the court process. Some have called for a regulation on social media to curb trials by media channels.

Other countries

Because of these fears, some courts do not allow cameras inside the courtroom. For instance, the United States’s Supreme Court does not allow proceedings to be broadcast, but it live-streams only the audio part of arguments. US judges have been sharply divided about the issue.

However, Federal Courts and lower courts have the option to allow cameras inside courtrooms. In the OJ Simpson case between 1994-’95, where an American football player was being tried for the murder of his wife, the trial became a televised affair and a point of “obsession” for the entire country. Experts say that participants got “sucked into the media vortex” making everyone – lawyers, jurors, judges and even witnesses – conscious about the camera.

Many other countries, such as Brazil, the United Kingdom and Australia have allowed proceedings of several courts for more than a decade now.

But several experts feel that these instances may not be comparable. Dam explained, for instance, that the way the United Kingdom Supreme Court operates is very different from its Indian counterpart.

“I haven’t heard any complaints about live-stream here [in the United Kingdom],” he said. “But I also don’t read about the Supreme Court in United Kingdom newspapers - this is not a topic of reporting except in highly controversial cases which might happen once or twice a year.”

Thus, the effect of live-streaming on Indian courts will be seen with time. “The change itself is too new to draw any empirical conclusions,” said legal academic Shubhankar Dam.

“The jury is out” on whether this will benefit or worsen Indian courts, senior advocate and politician Abhishek Manu Singhvi told India Today. He noted that broadcasting of the Parliament, which started in the 1990s, while allowing common people to see their elected representatives in action also led to many people disrupting the Parliament as it was appreciated by their constituency.