Without RTI and audio records, CCTV in courtrooms no big deal

Transparency in judicial proceedings will be more meaningful if there is audio and video recording of court proceedings, and should be within the reach of the Right to Information Act

Photo by Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Kunal Patil/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

NH Political Bureau

Did the Supreme Court take two steps forward and one back while ordering that CCTV cameras be installed in courtrooms in at least two districts of every state within the next three months?

The decision raised eyebrows in the legal fraternity, with several lawyers saying on condition of anonymity that video recording of statements recorded by the police at police stations would have been far more useful.

But what raised the hackles of activists was the court’s decision to keep the video recording outside the purview of the Right to Information Act. What is more, the recording would be without the audio.

Welcoming the baby step taken by the Supreme Court in removing opacity through the installation of close circuit (CCTV) cameras inside lower courts, the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR*) criticised the decision for not having audio recording and to keep the footage beyond the purview of the Right to Information Act (RTI).

“We strongly disapprove of the Court directing that the CCTV video coverage will be beyond the reach of the RTI Act. 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,” said CJAR.

While High Courts have been empowered to grant permission to anyone seeking the video recording, this is not seen as an adequate or viable replacement to the mechanism of the RTI Act.

The Bench of Justices AK Goel and UU Lalit had on March 28 directed the experimental use of CCTVs in trial courts in at least two districts of each large state while small States/Union Territories have been exempted. The court order was on a petition filed by Pradyuman Bisht for audio-video recording of trial court proceedings to ensure fair trial and transparency.

However, there would be no audio recording for the CCTVs that would be “inside the courts and important locations of the courts as may be considered appropriate.”

These accompanying directions could defeat the very purpose of ushering in greater transparency and accountability in the functioning of the judiciary. 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. “In the absence of knowledge of what was said and not said in court, the purpose of gathering CCTV footage becomes utterly futile,” says CJAR.

They urged the apex 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.

As all court proceedings are necessarily open to the public, CJAR doesn’t see any reason whatsoever to deny those people a copy of the record of those proceedings through the RTI Act.

“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,” it said.

Besides, the March 28 order is in keeping with the Supreme Court’s reluctance to allow audio-video (AV) recording of court proceedings in the past. 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 three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed a petition that proposed the installation of CCTV cameras in the court halls of the Supreme Court. Thereafter, in July 2015 as well, the e-Committee did not consider the Centre’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.

That said, though a small step, the March 28 order does shake up the status quo and has already started a debate on more public access to judicial proceedings.

*CJAR’s patrons and executive members include Justice PB Sawant, Justice H Suresh, Prashant Bhushan, Nikhil Dey and Annie Raja

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines