//Video Conferencing as a judicial tool

Video Conferencing as a judicial tool

Several courts in India are video conferencing with prisons to ensure quicker and safer trials. The technology, while also saving the exchequer crores of rupees, has revealed more benefits than meets the eye. 

Justice delayed is Justice Denied

According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), as on June 30, 2004, 336,152 prisoners were crowded into jails across India. An overwhelming 239,146 of them — accounting for over 70 percent — occupy the shadowy world of the undertrial. Undertrials find themselves between a rock and a hard place. Not yet sentenced, they cannot start the process of getting out of jail and most are too poor to make bail. While only about two percent of those processed through the criminal justice system are finally convicted, undertrials face incarceration while they wait for a hearing. As a consequence, India’s jails are now overcrowded to almost thrice their capacity, which means inmates in some jails sleep in shifts.

Many undertrials continue to languish in jail only because the justice system, burdened with logistical problems, is unable to give them a hearing. The only way out was to radically change the way that undertrials got a hearing. Employing video conferencing to link prisons and courts was a brilliant idea. But the presumption of failure could have been overwhelming since e-governance projects are associated with high costs. And unless departmental buy-in is secured, a project is normally destined to be categorized, tagged, bubble-wrapped and shelved — to remain a file forever.

Fortunately, none of these affected video conferencing adversely.

Video conferencing is a not-so-high-cost and relatively simple solution to facilitating people’s appearance in court. Its first implementation, in Andhra Pradesh in 2000, cost a mere Rs 1.5 lakh. Karnataka soon followed suit.

The road to video conferencing in courts was paved by the Supreme Court in 2001, when it authorized the technology’s use. The judgment settled matters: Any resistance to buy-in from lower courts or prison departments was quickly banished.

The step, which pleasantly surprised many given the normally conservative approach of the law, wasn’t a sudden decision. The Supreme Court, the Department of Information Technology (DIT) and the National Informatics Centre (NIC) had been working with the ministries of Home and Law since the early 1990s to create a video conferencing system. It was part of a larger movement driven by the NIC to computerize the Supreme Court. They worked in collaboration with Singapore, which had utilized IT effectively in the judicial process since 1996.

Changes in national government leadership, however, caused delays. The NHRC  stepped in and made a committed push to implement the technology. Once it got the Supreme Court on its side, the project overcame inter-departmental conflicts.

A project as successful as video conferencing has differing versions of who pioneered it. According to many accounts, Bihar was the first state in the country to adopt video conferencing in courts. However, Andhra Pradesh may have been the first to lead the way. Way back in December 2000, then State Governor C. Rangarajan amended the law to enable a defendant to stand before a magistrate “either in person or through the medium of video linkage.” Andhra Pradesh’s first video link was operated between the Chanchalguda central jail and the Nampally City Criminal Courts. And, it cost a mere Rs 1.5 lakh to set up.

In early April 2003, the Supreme Court permitted trial judges to record evidence from witnesses living abroad via video conferencing. Within a week, a court in Mysore conducted India’s first long-distance case, involving a copyright violation against Los Angeles-based 20th Century Fox.

It’s Cheaper, Sue Us
Video conferencing is that rare solution that works to everyone’s convenience. State governments in India, which funnel large amounts of funds towards prison upkeep, have been able to save considerably using video conferencing. At last count, the state of Andhra Pradesh employed 1,000 police constable everyday to ferry inmates between jails and courts. While video conferencing has not entirely seen the end of this practice, it has made impressive inroads in pruning transportation costs.

Figures provided by Karnataka alone are proof. Between June 2003 and November 2005, 68,191 people from five jails across Karnataka (Bangalore, Mysore, Belgaum, Bijapur, and Dharwad) were produced before a magistrate using video conferencing. It saved the government over Rs 1.26 crore in transportation costs alone.  It’s the sort of money that goes a long way in a prison, which would explain why almost every state capital now video conferences between its city court and jails.
Dharam Pal Negi, Additional Director General of Police and Inspector General of Prisons, Karnataka State Police, says that what they saved directly from transportation is the least of it.
Depending on whose version one believes, Sayyed Khwaja Yunus, accused in the Ghatkopar bombing incident, either escaped from a police vehicle in January 2003 while being transferred from Mumbai to Aurangabad or was done to death. In another incident, Manoj Kumar Singh, a notorious undertrial criminal escaped from Patna in May 2004 under similar circumstances.

Curiously, undertrial escapes, and the inquiries that follow had been a fairly routine affair. While putting a figure to the cost of re-capturing an inmate is tough, there is no taking away from the fact that it is a cost both in material resources and scare manpower. And transfers, made sometimes on public transport, are an ideal time for criminals to make a quick getaway. Though, human rights activists allege that in some cases ‘escapes’ were a means to
‘silencing’ certain undertrials.

Thanks largely to video conferencing, Negi says, there have been no undertrial escapes from national prisons in the last two years. “There can’t be a better system,” says Negi adding that “its intrinsic value cannot be measured.”

Courting Unseen Benefits

There’s more to video conferencing than merely bridging the physical distance between the jail and the courtroom, echoes Dr. V. Vijayakumar, Registrar and Professor of Law, National Law School of India University, Bangalore. Dr. Vijayakumar says that video conferencing is really useful in child molestation cases where victims are shielded from the trauma of facing their assailants via a one-way video link.

Dr. Vijayakumar also says that video conferencing has a ripple effect that has “curbed corruption, enhanced accountability, and reduced the number of adjournments in a case.”

Under law, remand can be given in 15-day units, a right that is flagrantly ignored by the current system due to logistical barriers in prisons. Getting to the head of a line to see a judge has given occasion for corruption to bloom. Video conferencing by dint of lending better access to judges cut through the mass of corruption that surrounds the undertrial and ensures a speedier trial.

Video conferencing works two-ways. The court’s ability to look into prisons has reduced the harassment of inmates and given them a better chance to access medical aid. Video conferencing has made it possible for judges to view inmates directly. This in turn has made jail authorities more accountable.

The system has also proved its effectiveness in high-profile cases where witness protection is mandated. Pappu Yadav, who is being tried in Patna from Tihar jail, and Abdul Kareem Telgi, who allegedly features in varied hit lists and is being tried simultaneously in over five cities, are among those who have experienced video conferencing.  

Forward Motion

The benefits of video conferencing in courts have ensured that its usage has spread.  “Almost every state capital has got video-conferencing between its city court and jail,” points out C. L. M. Reddy, Head of Department, Courts Division, National Informatics Center, New Delhi.

The NIC, taking the process one step further, has proposed that lawyers should be allowed to video conference between their offices and the court, saving them travel costs and discomfort too. This request is still pending with the judiciary.

This, however, may only be a matter of time, as judges come to realize the immense potential of video conferencing. Talwant Singh, Additional District and Sessions Judge, New Delhi, and Chairman of the District Courts Website Committee, says, “There is a strategy behind video conferencing usage and it is not being used only for remand cases.” According to Singh all the three courts in New Delhi — Tis Hazari, Patiala House, and Karkardooma — have video conferencing studios. It has condensed trial time and has served justice better, he stresses.

In the June 2002 edition of its bi-annual analysis of prisoner population and undertrial prisoners, the NHRC found that the undertrial prisoner population was at 75 percent of the country’s total prison population. This figure came down to 71 percent by June 2004, a difference of about 100,000 people. Some of this change is attributed to  video conferencing. In September 2005, NHRC Chairperson Justice A.S. Anand lauded various measures being used to uphold human dignity in jails, including video-conferencing.

Video conferencing is being greeted so enthusiastically by those connected with the law that newer uses are being found continually. Tihar Jail now uses video conferencing between inmates and visitors to curb the smuggling of money, narcotics, cell phones and weapons.

Yet another innovative usage of video conferencing was implemented by the Court Dispute Resolution International (CDRI) in Singapore. CDRI is a settlement program co-conducted by a Singapore judge with judges from Australia and Europe. A similar system employed between the Portuguese and Indian courts during Abu Salem’s deportation might have expedited his extradition.

The system, as any that brings about change, has its share of detractors as well. One among these is Byatha N. Jagadeesh, Advocate, Alternative Law Forum, an NGO which works for the rights of undertrials. “Video conferencing is detrimental to the rights of the accused, since they will never feel free to talk, surrounded by the police,” he points out. The court is also a meeting ground where undertrials can interact with family members.  Video conferencing, he observes, prevents this.

While a few such valid issues remain, some lawyers, who have been known to rely on adjournments to delay cases, do not like video conferencing. The technology  makes it much harder for them to prolong cases indefinitely.

Now that’s something that we can all live with.

[from an essay wrote by Balaji Narasimhan,  Haazir Ho (Present Yourself), CIO India Magazine, Jan 2006.]