Open court jus­tice

Live stream­ing of apex court pro­ceed­ings is a good first step

Business Standard - - OPINION -

The ex­cite­ment sur­round­ing the Supreme Court’s judg­ment on Aad­haar last week over­whelmed an­other apex court judg­ment with equally im­por­tant long-term im­pli­ca­tions. This was the de­ci­sion to per­mit live stream­ing of apex court pro­ceed­ings. This is a sig­nif­i­cant judg­ment in more ways than one. Cur­rently, pro­ceed­ings in court at any level are open to the pub­lic but video and au­dio broad­cast­ing was not per­mit­ted. In re­al­ity, this has meant that cit­i­zens rarely have the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend court pro­ceed­ings be­cause court­rooms over­flow with le­gal and se­cu­rity per­son­nel and re­porters. This was the premise on which a law stu­dent had filed a suit in the apex court last year. High­light­ing the right of ac­cess to jus­tice as flow­ing from the fun­da­men­tal rights in the Con­sti­tu­tion, Jus­tice A M Khan­wilkar’s judg­ment stated live stream­ing “can epit­o­mise trans­parency, good gov­er­nance and ac­count­abil­ity, and more im­por­tantly, … [tran­scend] the four walls of the rooms to ac­com­mo­date a large num­ber of view­ers to wit­ness the live Court pro­ceed­ings”. Trans­parency, in fact, has been up­held as an im­por­tant value in it­self. “Sun­light is the best dis­in­fec­tant,” the judg­ment ob­served, adding that “[live-stream­ing] as an ex­ten­sion of the prin­ci­ple of open courts will en­sure that the in­ter­face be­tween a court hear­ing with vir­tual re­al­ity will re­sult in the dis­sem­i­na­tion of in­for­ma­tion in the widest pos­si­ble sense, im­part­ing trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity to the ju­di­cial process”.

This judg­ment puts In­dia on a par with some of the more pro­gres­sive le­gal dis­pen­sa­tions in the de­vel­oped world — in the UK, Canada (a pi­o­neer which al­lowed such live stream­ing in 1993), Aus­tralia (which per­mits TV cam­eras in all court­rooms), New Zealand (which per­mits it with court approval) and Brazil (which ad­di­tion­ally main­tains a Twit­ter ac­count and YouTube chan­nel). Last year, K K Venu­gopal, at­tor­ney gen­eral of In­dia, and three se­nior lawyers had set model guide­lines for en­abling live stream­ing, which, among other things, broadly state that mat­ri­mo­nial and sex­ual as­sault cases be kept out­side the purview of this rule and the reg­u­la­tion and copy­right of the broad­cast should vest in the court. The judg­ment also con­sid­ers this open court prin­ci­ple should even­tu­ally ex­tend to the high courts. The prin­ci­ple should ex­tend even­tu­ally to the lower courts, the level at which most cit­i­zens in­ter­face with the ju­di­ciary, and where cor­rup­tion and in­ef­fi­ciency are es­pe­cially no­to­ri­ous. In­deed, the prin­ci­ple could well be ex­tended to other spheres — such as par­lia­men­tary stand­ing com­mit­tee pro­ceed­ings, on the lines of US Congress hear­ings. Even to­day, for in­stance, Jus­tice M C Chagla’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the Hari­das Mundhra scan­dal — in­de­pen­dent In­dia’s first fi­nan­cial scam — re­mains the gold stan­dard of ac­count­abil­ity in gov­er­nance. The in­quiry was com­pleted in just 24 days, but the notable point was that the hear­ings were open to the pub­lic. The crowds that gath­ered to hear the pro­ceed­ings grew so large that loud­speak­ers were rigged up so that the peo­ple who did not get to en­ter the court­room could fol­low pro­ceed­ings out­side.

Of course, it is pos­si­ble to ar­gue that trans­parency does not nec­es­sar­ily lead to bet­ter gov­er­nance. Proof of this counter-fac­tual can be had from Par­lia­ment, where live trans­mis­sion of par­lia­men­tary ses­sions be­gan in a lim­ited form from 1994 on­wards and two ded­i­cated chan­nels beam full House pro­ceed­ings. De­spite the fact that cit­i­zens can watch the an­tics of MPs on live, ded­i­cated chan­nels, our peo­ple’s rep­re­sen­ta­tives have not felt it in­cum­bent on them­selves to con­duct or­derly or even pro­duc­tive ses­sions — al­most every year, par­lia­men­tary pro­duc­tiv­ity hits new lows and leg­is­la­tion is passed with­out a mod­icum of in­formed de­bate. But the ju­di­ciary is wont to hold it­self to a higher stan­dard as a guardian of demo­cratic prin­ci­ples. In that sense, live stream­ing of apex court pro­ceed­ings should be viewed as a good be­gin­ning for sim­i­lar trans­parency in other are­nas of pub­lic life.

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