India’s top legal rights organization, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR), has taken strong exception to the Supreme Court “direction” that “CCTV video coverage will be beyond the reach of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.”
In a statement on the Supreme Court order in Pradyuman Bisht v Union of India, passed on March 28, directing the experimental use of CCTVs in trial courts in at least two districts of each large state, CJAR says, while it welcomes the development, “we are troubled by some of the accompanying directions.”
Pointing out that the directios “have the effect of defeating the purpose of this exercise and not being in the interests of ushering in greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of the judiciary”, CJAR says, “As a matter of principle, courts cannot and should not carve out such exceptions to an important transparency law without very strong and compelling reasons.”
Those association with CJAR include Justice (retd) PB Sawant, Justice H Suresh (retd), well-known advocates Mihir Desai and Prashant Bhushan, senior activists Nikhil Dey, Cheryl Dsouza, Venkatesh Sundaram, Indu Praskash Singh, Annie Raja, Madhuresh Kumar, and Anjali Bharadwaj, among others.
“In the present instance, as all court proceedings are necessarily open to the public, we do not see any reason whatsoever for the exclusion of the videos obtained from the CCTV cameras from the scope of the RTI Act”, the statement underlines.
“Once people are allowed to watch the proceedings, there is no reason whatsoever to deny those people a copy of the record of those proceedings”, the statement says, adding, “The denial of such record would continue to lead to disputes about what actually transpired in the court.”
“There is no reason for such disputes to remain, when current technology allows a clear record of what transpired to be kept and made available”, the statement says, adding, “While the High Court has been empowered to grant permission to anyone seeking the video recording, we do not think that this is an adequate or viable replacement to the mechanism of the RTI Act.”
“Further”, the statement says, “by not providing for sound recording, the CCTV experiment as directed by the Court is bound to fail.” It insists, “The goal of ensuring full transparency in the judicial process would be completely defeated if CCTV footage is not accompanied by audio recording of the proceedings.”
Claiming that the order is “in keeping with the Supreme Court’s reluctance to allow audio-video (AV) recording of court proceedings in the past”, the statement says, “In November 2014, the e-Committee of the Supreme Court rejected the Central Government’s proposal to introduce AV recording in subordinate courts as a part of the e-Courts project.”
“Later in January 2015, a 3-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed a petition that proposed the installation of CCTV cameras in the court halls of the Supreme Court”, the statement says, adding, “Thereafter, in July 2015 as well, the e-Committee did not consider the Central Government’s proposal to install AV recording systems in subordinate courts on the ground that the courts system in India has not reached the level where recording of court proceedings can be permitted.”
The statement argues, “The interests of transparency in judicial proceedings will be rendered more meaningful if there is audio and video recording of court proceedings. We therefore urge the Supreme Court to modify its order so this much needed experiment is launched in a more sustainable manner, which can then be expanded to all levels of the judiciary.”