The Supreme Court live streamed the hearing of a set of petitions challenging the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023 on Sept 18. — DawnNewsTV/File

What did the televised trial experiment achieve?

Live broadcast of full court proceedings shows that, despite polarisation, the top court is not averse to accountability.
Published October 13, 2023

Though proceedings on the challenges to the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023 are over, the five hearings over a span of three weeks have given way to an impression that the apex court is not averse to public and parliamentary accountability.

These proceedings were prompted by a contested legislation that had attempted to regulate the affairs of the top court and dilute the powers of the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), much to the chagrin of certain judges who termed this legislation an intrusion into the affairs of the court.

These judges opposed the legislation till the end by asking questions from counsels defending the law and expressing their dissent in the short order that concluded the case.

For the first time in Pakistan’s judicial history, the trial was televised. But this broadcast, described as a pilot project by the incumbent CJP, also unveiled deep-rooted polarisation within the superior judiciary. Nonetheless, every hearing was aired to the benefit of public.

Live broadcast of full court proceedings shows that, despite polarisation, top court not averse to accountability

Simultaneously, the Supreme Court also installed its own system to ensure proceedings of important cases could be uploaded on its website, saying it was not advisable to remain dependent on the PTV.

Polarisation in the court

Speaking to Dawn, a veteran counsel said the live broadcast brought transparency to the court proceedings as well as showed polarisation in the highest court of the country.

“Even the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, considered to be the bastion of conservatism, allowed live-streaming of court proceedings during the Brexit hearing,” he recalled.

Some lawyers who arrived at Courtroom No.1 to argue without preparation were also exposed. The contrast also put the spotlight on the brilliance of certain lawyers, who were not only up to speed on the case, but also displayed a presence of mind by quickly responding to the constant queries of the judges.

Since this experiment was carried out for the first time in the courtroom, some of the lawyers who were unaccustomed to such a setting fumbled or advanced their arguments rather clumsily, conceded senior counsel Salahuddin Ahmed.

But over a period of time, the temperament and conduct of both the lawyers and judges will improve once they understand that they are under public scrutiny, he said. Transparency in the court’s affairs is the right of the people and this experiment provided a good opportunity in this regard, he added.

Some people may use this medium to gain popularity but even then the advantages of live streaming outweigh its harmful aspects, Mr Ahmed said.

The broadcast of proceedings will not make court reporters redundant, said a senior counsel in response to a query. In fact, it will help journalists become creative in their reporting but will also show how skilfully the journalists present tedious proceedings in a presentable way.

Road to live-streaming

The live-streaming of court proceedings has been part of the discourse for quite some time. On March 25, 2022, Justice Munib Akhtar described as “novel” an application by then-Justice Qazi Faez Isa, seeking the public broadcast of his review petition.

Justice Akhtar had referred the matter to the CJP for deliberation and appropriate action by the full court. Justice Akhtar had observed that technological developments should be monitored and appreciated to ensure that access to justice for litigants is constantly improving.

Therefore, the court’s dismissal of the application should not be construed as an absolute refusal of public broadcast or live streaming of court proceedings.

Instead, it should be understood as an exercise in judicial restraint and caution.

“We are aware that judicial systems around the world are experimenting with cameras in the courtroom,” Justice Akhtar observed, saying that some courts are regularly broadcasting/live streaming their proceedings while others are participating in pilot projects.

The United Kingdom and Canadian supreme courts are in the former category, as they have been permitting live streaming of their cases for a long time. The state and federal courts of the United States are in the latter category because they are at varying stages in terms of allowing the broadcasting of their hearings.

In view of the judicial system in Pakistan, Justice Akhtar had explained it appeared to be a certain overlap (both technologically and otherwise) between granting permission for hearings through video link and for permitting public broadcast/live streaming of court proceedings.

Later on Feb 15, 2023, then CJP Umar Ata Bandial dropped hints of making available the transcript or live-streaming of court proceedings by stating that the matter would be taken up in the full court meeting to forestall any chance of inaccuracies in court reporting.

“We have considered this issue and will take it up in the full court,” former CJP had observed while heading a three-judge bench hearing the NAB tweaks case.

Published in Dawn, October 13th, 2023