Petitioners submitted that use of video-conferencing technology had ‘immense untapped potential benefits’ for both government and citizens
The Bombay High Court has directed the Maharashtra government to form a committee and submit a report on post-pandemic hearings of quasi-judicial hearings through video-conferencing within two months.
In October last year, amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic in Maharashtra, a group of noted Right to Information (RTI) activists led by the former Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi; founder of Pune-based RTI Katta discussion forum Vijay Kumbhar; and founder of Sajag Nagrik Manch rights group Vivek Velankar had requested the State government to conduct the first hearings of RTI appeals through video-conferencing.
In their PIL, the petitioners had submitted that the use of video-conferencing technology had “immense untapped potential benefits” for both the government as well as the citizens in that it saved time, addressed delays and adjournments, precluded travel and reduced strain on the existing transport infrastructure, amongst other benefits.
The PIL had urged the State Government to make an arrangement for the consultation committee, with petitioners as members of the public, so that the video-conferencing technology was better implemented in the interest of justice.
Earlier this week, the Advocate General of Maharashtra, A. A. Kumbhakoni, and Additional Government Pleader Geeta Shastri, on behalf of the State government, had submitted that the government “proposed to assess the necessary infrastructure for deciding as to whether quasi-judicial hearings with the public can be continued through video-conferencing during the post-pandemic period bearing in mind financial implications for the same”.
Advocate Shastri, referring to a December 11, 2019 communication received by her from the Principal Secretary, General Administration Department, said that a committee was being formed at the State government level with the presence of the General Administration, Finance, Law and Judiciary and the IT Departments.
The Committee would be required to hold consultation with experts in the field, and to solicit suggestions from the general public, including the petitioners, before an appropriate decision is taken in regard to continuation of quasi-judicial hearings through video conferencing.
The court, in its directive of January 5, stated that: “We have no doubt in our mind that the observations contained in the (December 11) communication in this regard shall be given effect to in letter and spirit. As and when the Committee is formed and the petitioners informed, the first petitioner (Mr. Gandhi and others) may provide appropriate inputs to the said Committee for its consideration. We desire the Committee to prepare and submit its report at the earliest, preferably within two months from the date of its formation.”
The High Court further said that the government should proceed to take a final decision on the acceptance of such report (or otherwise) “as expeditiously as possible”.
Speaking to The Hindu, Mr. Kumbhar said that following the court’s directive to the government, the petitioners would now be awaiting response from the administration’s end regarding inputs to be given to the committee.
In the October PIL, the petitioners had also submitted to the High Court that the use of video-conferencing could not be seen as a temporary issue and that steps needed to be taken to make it a sustainable long-term viable mode of quasi-judicial/ administrative proceedings by making it available through the already connected web portal ‘Aaple Sarkar’, rather than making a short-term, half-hearted investment of the State’s precious resources.
This would enable hearings even in the remotest of villages in Maharashtra, the PIL had observed.