With in-person hearings becoming untenable due to the pandemic, courts across India have moved to virtual hearings. Lawyers say that while the experience has been pleasant so far, virtual hearings still come with their disadvantages.
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE EXPERIENCE OF VIRTUAL HEARINGS SO FAR? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE CHALLENGES YOU FACED IN ADAPTING, AND WHAT ARE YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVING THE EXPERIENCE?
Rahul Goel, partner, AnantLaw
The onset of virtual hear-ings has helped litigants from far-off corners of the country approach the judiciary in these unprecedented times of the pandemic. Virtual hearings have set the entire legal fraternity up for a journey towards becoming increasing technology-savvy and flexible. Although virtual hear-ings may save time for several lawyers, the same has brought the issue of the digital divide to the forefront.
The luxury of hearing senior advocates argue is scarce now; unless it is your item, one may have to wait in the lobby. This especially deprives young lawyers from experiencing and learning the invaluable art of advocacy and courtcraft.
At this stage, access to justice is totally dependent upon technology and access to it. It is extremely important that the courts are equipped with best of technology. Lawyers, including those at district courts, should be allowed free access to equipment and bandwidth by the setting up of special rooms for attending hearings.
Rajdutt Shekhar Singh, partner, Singh & Associates
So far as my experience of virtual hearings is concerned, it depends at what stage a matter is. If the matter is at the preliminary stage or listed for hearing on the interim/miscellaneous applications, then virtual hearings work smoothly. However, if the matters are at the stage of cross-examination or final hearing, then the virtual hearings are not as effective as in-person hearings. The real-time interactions or coordination work is efficiently done during in-person hearings; however, in virtual hearings, exchanging information among the counsels’ team, and real-time interaction with the client is a challenge. Further, there is less control of the process in a virtual hearing since it is harder to capture the body language of the witness during a deposition virtually.
Understanding of the appropriate technology and usage of virtual platforms for consultation with clients, and preparation of witnesses on virtual platforms has helped us in accommodating the challenges.
Ila Kapoor, partner, Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas
Though the initial fear has now dissipated, we did face a few hurdles along the way. Physical hearings made it easier to anticipate pauses and read non-verbal communication styles. In virtual hearings, it seemed that this would be an issue, but with magnified facial expressions on video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, we did not feel this was a major obstacle. Another challenge we faced was dealing with voluminous documents and how to present them at a virtual hearing. We are now very comfortable demonstrating e-copies of documents. Also while conducting virtual cross-examinations, we found it reassuring that we were able to view the entire room the witness was in. Conducting test runs before the main hearing with the real-time transcript if any is always helpful. Having dedicated WhatsApp groups or other platforms with clients/team members to discuss the proceedings in real-time during the hearings is a must.
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