Justice must not only be done, the saying goes, it must be seen to be done. And video recordings can help us clearly see the process of justice being done. We have a fundamentally excellent justice system, and there should be no embarrassment in videotaping court proceedings. Or so we think. Members of said excellent justice system think differently, and ever since the idea of videos in court came up, the honourable members of the court have been stoutly opposing not only video but also audio recordings.
Happily, the Calcutta high court has set a precedent in openness. On July 15, the proceedings in one of its courtrooms was recorded for 45 minutes. Advocate Deepak Khosla had requested CCTV recording because he was tired of being insulted by the opposing counsel. He had argued that recording would dissuade advocates from using bad language and debasing the dignity of the court. And if there was no video recording of the proceedings, he said, he would “respectfully refuse to appear, as it only results in (an) embarrassingly-public erosion of our much-valued dignity, as well as diminution of the standing and authority of the honourable court and the solemnity of the proceedings it conducts, not to mention forcing us to be subjected to the distinct possibility of brutal physical assault as well.” (Mr Khosla has been campaigning for accountability and transparency through video or audio recording of court proceedings and had even been sent to a lunatic asylum by an infuriated judge for recording court matters on his mobile phone.) Justice Aniruddha Bose agreed, and got room number 24 fitted with a permanent video camera and microphone. For the first time, high court proceedings were recorded on camera.
There would have been no need for this step if the courts had been better guardians of their own dignity. And they should not appear to be resisting openness at a time when their public image is being eroded. A number of scams involving judges showed us that the judiciary is not wholly incorruptible. And now there is the perception that it is buckling too easily to a domineering government in the matter of judicial appointments. Our justice delivery system has been steadily losing the enormous dignity it once had.
However, restoration of dignity would be the least of the salutary effects of videos of court proceedings. In the first place, the institution of the court recorder, who types up the proceedings on the fly, is past its use by date. Video for the record would be far more meaningful than a transcript. For instance, the dodgy practices used by lawyers for cross-examination — aggressive or unpleasant behaviour, leading questions, misleading questions — would be painfully exposed. So would the practice of granting adjournments on flimsy pretexts.
Most importantly, the video record would provide an easily understood timeline on a case. Even trivial civil matters run for over a decade in our lower courts. They usually outstrip the memory, and sometimes the lifespan, of parties involved. Then there are hostile witnesses. In a country where there is no witness protection, where political patronage gives goons impunity, where convicted criminals come out on bail and kill those who had deposed against them, it is easy for witnesses to chicken out and turn hostile. They have nothing to gain but a lot to lose if they depose simply for the sake of justice in a country where justice is slow and forgetful, but criminals are swift and attentive.
Look at the Vyapam scam. It seems to be the Tutankhamun’s curse of Indian jurisprudence. Till now it has felled over 40 people. Never mind, the victims’ families say, let’s move on. Not exactly the attitude of people who believe they can get justice for their dear ones. Think of Hashimpura. This March, three decades after 42 Muslims were allegedly picked up, packed in a truck, shot dead and tossed into canals by the Provincial Armed Constabulary from Hashimpura in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, every single accused walked free. The charged cops had nothing to fear, they did not even have a dent in their service records.
But dents are clearly visible in our justice system. Think of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Think of the Delhi riots of 1984. Think of all the murders and rapes by powerful people. The efficiency and dignity of our courts are steadily being eroded. A document of record of the entire case, exactly as it played out in the courtroom, would bring clarity to such situations. The atmospherics and body language visible in a video could help to explain why a witness turned.
But not everyone is comfortable with transparency. Proposals to record court proceedings by the UPA-II have remained on paper. The Advisory Council of National Mission for Justice Delivery and Legal Reforms, chaired by then law minister Kapil Sibal, had asked for video recordings of court proceedings, starting from trial courts, for the sake of transparency. The technology was easily available and not expensive. But they did not have the support of the higher judiciary. Even the initiative of the transparency-championing Aam Aadmi Party government to video record all court proceedings in Delhi failed. And the Bombay high court had deliberated on and then denied the demand for video recordings.
It’s like the movement for the right to information, where the last sticking point was the unwillingness of administrators to release their file notings to public scrutiny. However, activists had argued that in their absence, no timeline of events could be constructed. Therefore, neither could the motives of persons and institutions involved be gauged, nor could responsibility be fixed for mala fide actions.
Allowing audio-visual documents of record would significantly improve our justice system — if you are being watched, you behave better. There is no point in shouting about impunity, corruption and goondaism if we are not ready to strengthen our justice delivery mechanism.
In fact, we should be allowed to watch trials on television. If not live (like the global live coverage of star athlete Oscar Pistorius’ trial for murder in South Africa) at least as recorded events. Why not? If parliamentary proceedings can be telecast live, why not at least recorded versions of important court proceedings? We need to move with the times, and videos are better documents of record than typed sheets where facts are often struck out and nuances and details ignored. Democracies around the world allow audio and video recordings of their top courts. If we value our democracy, we should too.
The writer is editor of The Little Magazine. She can be contacted at: email@example.com