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DESK BRIEF: For SC, are online hearings just a stopgap solution necessitated by COVID-19 or an innovation with widespread and long-term use?

Today, the Supreme Court completed its first full week of physical hearings since March 2020. On Monday, Chief Justice Ramana led his brother and sister Judges on what resembled a victory lap through the SC’s corridors, having seen it through two long years of COVID-19. 
Courtrooms, corridors, and canteens are packed again as lawyers return to the Court with renewed energy. Virtual hearings still remain, albeit in a limited fashion—lawyers may appear virtually with the Court’s permission. In the past week, Senior Advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, both residing outside of Delhi, were granted permission to argue the Amazon-Future dispute online. Online hearings have allowed lawyers and litigants from all over the country to approach the Supreme Court in the past two years.
However, it is unclear how permissive the Court will be with virtual hearings as no clear criteria have been issued yet. How Judges use their discretion in the coming months will indicate the Court’s attitude towards online hearings—are they just a stopgap solution necessitated by COVID-19 or an innovation with widespread and long-term use?
Much time was spent during the pandemic years to develop an online hearing system. After facing technical difficulties with VIDYO and contemplating the creation of its own app, the Supreme Court appears to have found the closest solution to glitch-free online hearings through Webex. 
However, no matter how advanced the software may be, online hearings still give rise to a unique set of problems. As SCO’s Court Reporters have observed, unstable Internet connections at both the Judges’ and lawyers’ ends seem inevitable, sometimes delaying hearings. Judges cannot control online courtrooms the way they do in person—unable to hear clearly, lawyers often speak over each other, sometimes even over the Bench.
The Court is simultaneously aware of the benefits of virtual hearings. They have enabled lawyers from all over the country to appear before the Supreme Court, said Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, making it a ‘truly national Court’. Online hearings may have also brought the Court a step closer to solving the regional exclusion problem on its docket—litigants incur large travel expenses to appear before the Supreme Court. Continuing online hearings at scale could make the decades-long debate on setting up accessible regional benches of the Court redundant. 
The Supreme Court clearly seems to be striding towards a post-COVID future. The past week offered an opportunity for cautious optimism, with the Court considering the ending of a two-year long break in hearings on crucial cases of public importance. It remains to be seen what part online hearings will play in this future. 
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