Can live-streaming and AI transcriptions restore faith in India’s troubled court system?

File: India’s Supreme Court building is pictured in New Delhi on 9 July 2018 (AFP via Getty Images)
File: India’s Supreme Court building is pictured in New Delhi on 9 July 2018 (AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, a 21-year-old law intern found the practice of not being allowed into the rooms of India’s top court on certain days of the week discriminatory. He decided to challenge the custom.

He suggested that live-streaming of the court’s proceedings be allowed so that legal interns such as himself could benefit.

Five years later, on the suggestion of senior advocate Indira Jaising, the Supreme Court of India introduced live transcription of courtroom proceedings using artificial intelligence, a move that promises to modernise judicial record-keeping and help budding lawyers.

Announcing its launch on an experimental basis, chief justice of India DY Chandrachud said if it “works well, we will have a permanent record of the arguments”.

“This will not only help the lawyers but also students from law colleges who can know how these important cases were argued before the Supreme Court,” he said.

These new technological innovations come at a time when issues including an extreme backlog of cases and accusations of growing closeness between the judiciary and the government have dented confidence in India’s court system.

The move to allow cameras into the courtroom last year “surprised” Swapnil Tripathi, now a PhD student at the Faculty of Law at Oxford University in London. He had almost lost hope that the court would implement its 2018 decision to allow live-streaming of proceedings as an individual’s right to access justice guaranteed under the Indian constitution.

“I went to the registry to seek a pass to enter the court. But they told me that you’re not allowed entry on Mondays inside [the court] because you’re not a lawyer,” he recalls in an interview with The Independent.

A rule disallowed interns from entering the top court on Mondays and Fridays, when fresh matters are listed. At the time, Tripathi was assisting a Supreme Court advocate on a case that was listed on a Monday.

“I found that very discriminatory.... because there’s a Bar Council regulation that we are supposed to mandatorily intern.

“And I felt if we are not being allowed inside the court premises on certain days then that is violating my right to learn under those guidelines and it’s kind of defeating the purpose of that internship in the first place.”

Tripathi decided to file a case suggesting live-streaming of court proceedings in a media room, where “interns can sit and watch what’s happening in the court”.

“Often the argument for not allowing interns is that [they] overcrowd the courtrooms which are already very crowded,” he shares. “So I said, we can defeat the crowd, if you just live stream the proceedings.”

This facility would, however, not be used for all courtrooms but only by the benches comprising five or more judges hearing matters related to the interpretation of the country’s constitution.

Widely hailed by lawyers, the latest endeavour incorporates suggestions made by Jaising to modernise the Indian judiciary and accord greater transparency and accountability for courtroom proceedings.

Jaising also suggested links for live-streaming of court hearings be made available on the cause list – a list of cases awaiting hearing.

From district courts all the way to the top, India’s justice system is notoriously slow, the result of an overwhelming case backlog that has previously been highlighted by justices at the Supreme Court themselves. Last year the then-chief justice NV Ramana said India had more than 40 million cases pending in lower courts and just “20 judges per million population, which is highly inadequate to deal with the rising trend of litigation”.

Police routinely accept that more minor cases will never work their way through the courts, instead meting out their own summary justice, whether that be through mediation or simply beating suspects and then refusing to register complaints. And even the most serious and high-profile offences take years to reach a conclusion.

Experts say that while live-streaming and transcription facilities might not have an immediate impact on speeding up the judicial process, increased transparency could go some way towards easing the distrust in the system that arises out of these delays.

In terms of accessibility and trust building, Tanmay Singh from the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation calls it a “great move”, arguing that there are lots of cases that attract public interest and public attention, even if you are not directly the litigant.

“There are cases that the public wants to follow them or wants to know what is happening with them, even if they are not any of the directly impacted parties. And having not just the final order, but also the record of proceedings that go on during the court hearing is great for accessibility. It’s also great for trust-building and for transparency.”

In August last year, almost four years after it made the recommendation, the Supreme Court live-streamed the farewell of then chief justice NV Ramana. A month later, it live-streamed a case proceeding for the first time, which was lauded as a new era in India’s jurisprudence.

“Lawyers and judges often make off-the-cuff or remarks in a light vein,” he says.“The way to not take that out of context, is only when you have the access to the details”.

“The availability of the entire transcript, I think would actually be helpful in providing the context for any off-the-cuff remarks that get highlighted at a later point”.

Even legal journalists approve of having access to transcripts. “There is a larger benefit of this because it will remain as a permanent court record,” says Live Law editor Manu Sebastian. “Sometimes, there will be some dispute regarding whether this point was not argued. One can always verify the record and see what was the exact argument. And since the record is maintained by the court itself, it’s authentic.”

But since the transcription would be AI-generated, there may be a problem when two or more lawyers argue at the same time, said the chief justice, raising concerns about the limitation of the technology.

“We do have the technicians who will later clear the voices,” he said. “After the hearing is over, lawyers will be given copies of their arguments for vetting too.”

To allow a lawyer to review the record of the arguments will also help correct other typographical errors, in case the recording software mishears a word, says Singh. “But I am not sure at this moment how the review process exactly will work and what the scope of review is,” he says.

“So whether it will be something just as surface level as [correcting typographical error] or whether there will be the opportunity to remove these off-the-cuff remarks, I think that clarity is not there yet but that we just have to see how it works in the implementation of it.

“Either way, I don’t think this will be a chance to improve their arguments,” he adds. “I think that will continue to be on the basis of the written submissions and oral submissions that are made in the courtrooms.”

While courts across the world have long resisted allowing cameras inside during a trial, India is not the only country to provide live-streaming and transcription facilities.

The UK Supreme Court also allowed live streaming of selected cases in 2019 and permits a petitioner to seek a transcript of the courtroom proceeding if the hearing is recorded.

The Supreme Court of Kenya, the constitutional court of South Africa, the Supreme Federal Court of Brazil and the Canadian Supreme Court also allow the live streaming of proceedings.

The US Supreme Court provides text transcription of the proceedings and uploads only the audio of the proceeding with a delay of a week. A similar asynchronous approach is taken by the Australian Supreme Court which streams hearings of its full-court cases on its website with a delay of about a day, reported the Business Standard.

Indian rules recommend a 10-minute delay on the live-stream. The delays are seemingly aimed at ensuring that unexpected incidents such as sensitive information can be edited out.

But opponents argue that live-streaming of courtroom proceedings can lead to grandstanding by judges and lawyers – a concern also highlighted by the 17th chief justice of the United States, John Roberts.

“We, unfortunately, fall into grandstanding with a couple of hundred people in the courtroom,” he said in 2011. “I’m a little concerned about what the impact would be.”

Almost a decade later, lawyers feel that cases of greater public importance have always had media attention.

“I think that lawyers and judges ultimately are professionals,” says Singh. “Having a camera on them is unlikely to distract them too much because already – especially in the Supreme Court – lots of cases are argued and heard and tried and judgments are written that have immense public interest... even before all the various technological tools that we have now.”