Women lawyers seek the option of virtual or hybrid hearings to continue

MORE than 100 women advocates practising at the Supreme Court have come together to make a representation to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) and his companion judges at the Supreme Court requesting the continuance of the hybrid model of court proceedings that was adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic along with the resumption of physical hearings. As a result of requests by the Bar, physical proceedings have once again commenced in many courts, with the expectation that the hybrid hearings will soon be discontinued.

The letter, therefore, suggests that the option of choosing hybrid or virtual proceedings should remain open to members of the Bar or litigants who wish to avail it, in view of its apparent professional advantages for the women in particular.

The letter notes that the switch to digital proceedings proved to be a blessing in disguise for a large cross-section of the Bar, especially to women lawyers, young lawyers not based out of Delhi, and elderly lawyers. This is especially true of  pregnant women or women with young children, or women who are often also primary caregivers in their families. Digital hearings not only allowed them to minimize the risk of contracting COVID-19 while continuing their active practice, but also allowed them to balance competing demands of the profession and family obligations, without forsaking one for the other.

While the representation was conceived by women advocates with young children, many senior lawyers have indicated their support for the cause. It is important to acknowledge that many women advocates, as young mothers and primary caregivers, are forced to sacrifice their profession so as to focus their time and energy on their families. Allowing them the option to continue to practice remotely ensures equity and dignity in the practice of the profession, and allows them to be equal stakeholders of the justice system, irrespective of their circumstances.

Furthermore, such a system would benefit not only women advocates but others too, reducing the time, energy and costs expended to see a matter through. With the new normal consisting of the use of end-to-end technology for court proceedings, and little time spent waiting around in courtrooms for a matter to begin, lawyers can spend the time saved, on their families or to improve the quality of services provided to their clients. It also allows the justice system to become more accessible to lawyers and litigants from across the country, allowing them to file cases in other states and present witnesses located in geographically distant locations, with considerably reduced costs.

Furthermore, virtual hearings also allow the justice system to be more transparent, and thereby, more efficient. All paperwork is available at the fingertips of the judges and the parties with additional features available for e-documents, making the proceedings faster and more efficient. E-documents also enable easier filing, and make data sharing between courts easier, and more transparent, the letter says.

The strides made towards accessible justice must not be sacrificed at the altar of outdated notions of what a court of justice means. Access to justice is a core constitutional principle, and a virtual system benefits not only officers of the Court, but also all stakeholders of the justice system. It remains to be seen if the Court will grant sufficient weight to these requests and devise a hybrid system that will benefit both the groups – those that prefer physical hearings, and those that benefit from virtual hearings.

According to them, digitally enabled courts have become more equal for women litigants and women lawyers. Preserving and continuing the hybrid mode of hearing will ensure maximum participation and representation of lawyers and litigants, the letter says.

Chitrangda  Rastravara, a signatory to the representation, told The Leaflet: “For the first time, we are not bound to make a choice between our competing responsibilities, and we can continue to discharge our caregiving responsibilities at home and also rise up to the extremely rigorous requirements of a career in litigation.  Many of my colleagues feel that not only has this allowed better access to justice but it has made us more efficient as lawyers.  The focus should be on whether a lawyer or litigant is fully prepared and whether there is any merit in the matter, not whether that lawyer or litigant can appear in person or chooses to appear through digital platforms”.

The full letter, along with the list of signatories, can be viewed here.