A glimpse of the new normal in a world infected by Covid-19 came in the US Supreme Court hearing arguments by teleconference, with the nine judges asking questions in turn of the attorneys. The proceedings in the unprecedented hearing were also made public in a live audio feed. The issue may have been a seemingly mundane one of a trademark dispute but the hearing, just the first of about 10 cases the justices will hear over the next couple of weeks, establishes the principle that virtual court sessions can help speed up the justice delivery process even in an emergency.
It is moot whether there is an inestimably precious value to watching justice play out live in a room full of people as we have come to experience over time in the traditional format. The grandeur of courtroom drama has been the subject of great stories, serials and films but that takes a backseat now. The Indian courts - High Courts as well as the Supreme Court - have proved adept at holding virtual hearings and pronouncing orders even earlier than the US Supreme Court. What seems to be missing, however, is a compelling sense of urgency that our system, overwhelmed by the pendency of writs, appeals and PILs, needs badly.
Unlike the US Supreme Court which chooses to hear matters only after the Rule of Four is met - at least four judges must decide to take up the case — the Indian top court is the ultimate court of appeal for almost any matter, including anticipatory bail. While virtual rulings handed down so far are to be appreciated when it is so easy to put off hearings in the face of the pandemic, it must be pointed out that substantive issues have not been tackled in many a national cause celebre, including the constitutionality of the abrogation of Article 370 in J&K. Given the predicament of our society that is wracked by excesses of the executive and the slowness of the legislative process, the top court is the supreme arbiter and it must keep the wheels of justice rolling.