The pandemic has brought everyone to almost a standstill, including the judiciary. However, the crisis has compelled every institution to embrace "new normal" ways to function smoothly. In fact, it is only because of these new normals that the courts functioned without much hindrance, even when the other sectors struggled to cope with the pandemic.
Virtual hearings, have become the new normal with almost every court in India conducting regular hearings through video conferencing.
However, not all the courts have made full use of digitization. There are a few like the Maharashtra Administrative Tribunal (MAT) which continued with the traditional hearings and also "risked their lives" to hold hearings.
Surprisingly, the MAT doesn't have the basic infrastructure to function regularly just like any other court. "We are not having even the basic infrastructure to work here. There is no video conferencing software available for us," confirmed Justice (retd) Mriudla Bhatkar, who heads the MAT since April this year.
According to Bhatkar, due to absence of any mechanism, the tribunal is compelled to work physically.
"From April end itself, we started working and heard arguments physically. We have however, limited our timing and now due to the pandemic we are only working twice a week," Justice Bhatkar told the Free Press Journal.
"Though we are hearing the matters physically but we are ensuring that the norms of social distancing are being followed scrupulously," Justice Bhatkar added.
The MAT has written to the state government seeking basic infrastructure for it to conduct virtual hearings.
"We have written to the state government to provide us with the required funds and softwares for a smooth functioning of tribunal, though virtually," said Praveen Dixit, former top cop of Mumbai, who also presides over the tribunal as a member to hear the cases.
As per Dixit, since the tribunal doesn't come under the Bombay High Court, it doesn't have the basic infrastructure. "Had the tribunal been under the HC rules, we would have had got the software and the funds automatically. But in the present times of pandemic, getting funds is also an issue," Dixit said.
Dixit further said that he is more concerned about people visiting the tribunal and thus seeks timely help from the state.
"People come to the tribunal from various places of Mumbai and nearby districts. They travel in public transport system and that's what I am concerned of. One cannot predict who would be infected and who not," Dixit said.
"Even if we are following all the social distancing norms but still meeting physically has some risk. Its not only about me or other colleagues but of the numerous staffers working for the tribunal, the advocates appearing before us etc," Dixit clarified.
However, Dixit has welcomed the new normal way of functioning. "Virtual hearings have become a boon for all. It has not only brought down the overcrowding in courts but has also reduced pollution as people need to travel through vehicles till the courts. You can appear before any court across India, simply by sitting at your home," the IPS officer added.
Meanwhile, the state and the tribunal authorities are presently corresponding and working out a mechanism to bring in virtual hearings for the MAT.