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Ask persons with disabilities how to make e-courts disabled-friendly

A Supreme Court committee is working on new rules that will determine how live streaming of court proceedings will take place in India. E-courts are a reality now, thanks to the pandemic, and the court is wise to step up public consultations on live proceedings. The rules at present do not disregard persons with disabilities, but the court and government can certainly do more for and with them, writes SHASHANK SINGH.

IN May, the e-Committee of the Supreme Court issued model rules on live-streaming of court proceedings. These rules are currently open for suggestions from the general public. They seek to lay down the procedure to live-stream court proceedings on the court premises and online. The rules also consider how the proceedings can be recorded and uploaded on the website of the Supreme Court.

The live-streaming rules come at a crucial juncture because, over the last year, the courts have functioned online due to COVID-19 restrictions. The consultative process is part of attempts to ensure that developments on court premises reach ordinary people.

Several judgments passed by the high courts during the pandemic can influence the lives of persons with disabilities. For this reason, and because India has committed to accessibility as a policy, persons with disabilities must get a say in the final live-streaming rules. 

It is crucial to make these rules all-inclusive since legal researchers, court staff, litigants, academicians and journalists—who find mention in the draft rules—could also be persons with disabilities. Besides, since the Supreme Court is trying to ensure each citizen can view live proceedings, persons with disabilities should not get excluded.

Going by the customary practice (and the rules at present), designated rooms will become accessible for persons with disabilities. Recorded court proceedings, available on the website, will naturally be accessible to the differently-abled too. However, some more small details in these rules need attention.

According to the rules, the recordings “may” be uploaded, wholly or in part, on the court website or made available on other digital platforms. Recordings that are uploaded will be made accessible. The use of “may” means the question of uploads is discretionary. It would depend on what a court decides. Thus, it follows that all proceedings may not be available on the website. Unfortunately, this divides persons with disabilities from those without disabilities.

The entire live stream will be accessible to persons without disabilities, that too in real-time. But only some will be accessible to people with disabilities: those the courts decide to upload. 

Also, the rules at present make the live stream accessible within the designated room on the court premises. However, they do not make the live stream accessible independently when being watched through a web link. It will be possible only when sign-language interpretation and close captioning will be mandated.

Also read: This disabled-friendly function to feature on all high courts websites

There is a reference to “special arrangements” for the differently-abled in the designated rooms. Yet, more details are warranted, considering the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act got enacted in 2016. This Act incorporates the principles of non-discrimination, equality of opportunity, accessibility, and the full and effective participation of persons with disabilities in society. As a result, the court staff must, in future, include sign language interpreters and other experts who can organise close captioning with the live streams.

The E-Committee of the Supreme Court has also formulated an action plan to ensure all high court websites are accessible. These steps, along with many favourable court judgments, demonstrate that the highest court inclines in favour of equal access for persons with disabilities.

The PWD Act borrows several crucial principles from the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In light of this, it is essential that any law, rule or regulation must follow the equal footing doctrine for persons with and without disabilities. 

To achieve this, every institution must make the process of framing these laws consultative. They can do this if they engage with associations of persons with disabilities (such as the national associations for those who cannot hear, see, have blood disorders and so on). Advocacy groups, activists and academicians must also get included.

Also read: Supreme Court Issues Slew Of Directions To Make Criminal Justice Disabled-Friendly

The e-committee of the Supreme Court was formed during the tenure of the 35th Chief Justice of India, Justice Ramesh Chandra Lahoti, during his term from 2004 to 2005. It is the governing body empowered to supervise the e-Courts Project. The project itself was envisaged in 2005 under a national policy and action plan to implement Information and Communication Technology in the Indian judiciary.

The Department of Justice in the Union Ministry of Law and Justice funds and monitors the e-Courts project. Its vision is to change the judicial system by enabling ICTs in the courts. But to achieve its lofty goal, those in charge must remember, the consultation process must be accessible too.

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(Shashank Singh is an advocate on record at the Supreme Court of India. The views expressed are personal.)