Live-streaming transparency

ALTHOUGH most of us have been distracted by the political intrigues of the present, an interesting development has taken place recently that deserves our attention. It is clearly not as newsworthy as an opposition trying to topple a sitting government, or a government trying everything to save its hide, but it could still have a monumentally positive impact on the delivery of justice in Pakistan.

Recently, the Islamabad High Court took the decision to live-stream and record court proceedings. However, it made clear that such an option would be accessible upon consultation with the relevant stakeholders. The court also constituted an e-committee to propose rules for live-streaming court proceedings. The committee shall be constituted by high court judges, Pakistan Bar Council and Islamabad Bar Association representatives and high court press reporters.

Indeed, live-streaming shall make information pertaining to the courts more readily available, and that is good. But is that the sum total of its benefit? After all, we already have very competent and diligent court reporters and journalists informing us of what is happening inside the courtroom. The media also covers court proceedings which are of interest to the community at large, and various courts upload a majority of their judgements/ orders online for viewing. So why all this fuss?

In fact, it is about the delivery of justice and the perception of whether justice is indeed being delivered. And at this point in time, both aspects are being questioned openly.

It is about the perception of whether justice is indeed being delivered.

Although most people consider that greater transparency alone can mend society’s perceptions of judicial work, nothing could be further from the truth. Live-streaming and documentation of proceedings increase the public’s access to and familiarity with the court. It has the effect of increasing transparency to the extent that judicial accountability and perception management intertwine, and both come into play. And in these polarising times, both are of pivotal importance for ensuring and augmenting the credibility of the judiciary.

Effectively, live-streaming will have a direct impact on the judiciary’s ability to hold itself accountable for its decisions. It will also allow the public to hold it accountable. After all, many litigants complain about how a particular judge was abrasive, impatient, inattentive, unhelpful, or unwilling to give a proper hearing. Now imagine if the same judge is aware that the proceedings are being live-streamed and recorded. Would his or her behaviour change?

Probably yes, because if a judge is aware that his or her behaviour in court, comments, observations and rulings are all being scrutinised by the public, he or she is more likely to be restrained in his or her remarks, more open and less confrontational. A greater deal of scrutiny is also likely to have a positive impact on impartiality and fairness.

Some say that this would make the judges more susceptible to public pressure or to being influenced by public opinion. But I don’t buy that argument. Judges are already aware of the intense polarisation in society. The last thing that a judge would want is to be considered partisan or part of an agenda. This would directly hit his or her credibility. Hence, every judge will be prioritising fairness and impartiality in order to protect himself or herself as well as the institution at large.

In addition, greater access to court proceedings through live-streaming would also be beneficial in countering negative perceptions that inevitably cast a shadow on the judiciary whenever it passes a decision in a highly contested matter. It is a fact that political parties tend to cherry-pick those observations of judges that suit their agendas, misreport or underreport aspects against them, and emphasise and de-emphasise remarks according to their likes and dislikes. It is also apparent — and unfortunate — that some journalists and media personalities tend to, either intentionally or unintentionally, misreport, underreport, not report, or partially report court proceedings depending on what they like or don’t like. From whichever angle one looks at it, this is severely debilitating for the prestige and credibility of any judge.

In such situations, live-streaming proceedings can go a long way in curtailing the ability of individuals or entities to manipulate court proceedings and politicise them. It will open up the court’s work to the public, who will develop a better appreciation of what happens during these proceedings. They will better understand the limitations of a system that is inundated with cases but doesn’t have the number of judges to take them to a conclusion in a timely way. They will witness an infrastructure in which clients and lawyers may prolong matters on account of adjournments, and where one’s best efforts may not be enough.

As such, the public will be in a better position to judge whether the court is biased or is working under systemic limitations, whether the statements of their representatives and those in the media are true or not, and whether the information being peddled on social media and other forums is accurate or mere clickbait.

In a nutshell, the initiative in question can serve as a bridge between the public and judiciary to increase trust, credibility and confidence. In the current era, the judiciary is used to talking through its judgements and relying on third-party interlocutors, such as court reporters and the media, to protect itself. But perhaps it is time to discard this approach in favour of a more direct one. Perhaps it is time for the judiciary and the public to be directly linked for the sake of positive publicity, transparency and openness.

After all, publicity doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Jeremy Bentham called it the very soul of justice and felt that it played a vital role in the rule of law. If he had seen how politically polarised we are today, perhaps he would have gone a step further and called it the very core of its being: that is, its heart and its soul.

The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer.

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