Author: N. L. Sunitha Bhagyalakshmi.
(2018) 1 SCC 1.
NAMES OF THE PARTIES
Respondent: Vijaya Venketesh.
Justice Dipak Mishra;
Justice A. M. Khanwilkar;
Justice D.Y. Chandrachud.
Matrimonial disputes are increasing by the day in India and this is a major cause of concern for the courts with cases piling up. The need for the introduction of technology in courts to ease the burden was mooted as the new method of speedy disposal of cases by various courts including the honorable Supreme Court.
A two-judge bench in Krishna Veni Nagam vs. Harish Nagam1 gave its views on grounds allowing video conferencing as an alternative to allowing transfer proceedings keeping in mind difficulties faced by litigants traveling to Courts. The court contemplated if the transfer of a case could be avoided by adopting other alternative modes of proceedings then it would be wise to allow the same in matrimonial disputes.
In this case, the court held that for advancing the interests of justice the doctrine of forum non-convenience can be applied to matrimonial proceedings. The doctrine of forum non-convenience which means an inconvenient forum permits courts to exercise jurisdiction over a case to stay or dismiss it as deemed appropriate.
The two-Judge bench thereby issued directions for providing an alternative mechanism of video conferencing to parties who approached the court seeking transfer of proceedings. Court also reiterated the need for technological advancement even in district courts wherein administrative instructions were issued to permit litigants to access electronic courts. As rightly pointed out by the two-judge bench introduction of technology is not only imperative to ease the burden of the courts but also channelizes the workflow of courts.
It is needless to say that courts should sooner or later start to recognize and implement the use of technology given the recent pandemic that brought the courts to a complete stand-still.
The brief facts of the case are given here below:
- The petitioner approached the Supreme Court seeking a transfer of petition filed for dissolution of marriage and custody of the minor child from a Family Court in Kerala to a Family Court in Chennai.
- The counsel for the respondent submitted to the court to take a view of the judgment in Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam and requested the court not to transfer the case and direct the parties to avail the video conferencing as in this case.
- The two-Judge bench of the Supreme Court on reviewing the referred case passed an order permitting the use of video conferencing as an alternative to the transfer petition.
- The present case between parties Santhini v. Vijaya Venketesh 2 is an outcome of the judgment of a two-Judge bench being referred to a three-Judge bench for review of the earlier order.
- The three-Judge bench having considered the case referred to by the respondent made a detailed analysis of all the cases discussed by the two-Judge bench and in what circumstances video conferencing was allowed given the specific circumstances of those cases.
In this given case Supreme Court framed the following issues:
- Whether the order passed by the two-Judge bench in Krishna Veni Nagam vs. Harish Nagam to provide a better alternative to the transfer petition correct?
- Whether video conferencing should be allowed in matrimonial disputes as an alternative to allowing transfer of petition?
- Whether video conferencing was contrary to the provisions of Section 11 of The Family Courts Act 1984 (the 1984 Act) and Section 23(2) of The Hindu Marriage Act 1955 (the 1955 Act)?
Review of decision of two-Judge Bench
The decision of the two-Judge bench considered video conferencing as an alternative because both spouses may face difficulties to commute to a court, especially in a different city. The court felt that if the transfer petition was allowed either one of the spouses was bound to suffer inconvenience as a jurisdiction will change. The court issued directions for conducting a video conferencing facility.
The decision of the two-Judge bench was taken after referring to the Statement of Objects of the Family Courts Act, 1984 including the role of counselors, reconciliation between couples, and principles of confidentiality as well. Again the two-Judge bench referred to Anindita Das v. Srijit Das 3 and opined that each case has to be dealt with separately and it did not lay down any law as a precedent.
The two-judge bench also run through Article 15(3) of the Constitution which guaranteed equal access to justice and the power of the State to make special provisions for women and children before concluding by allowing video conferencing as an alternative to allowing a transfer petition. The three-Judge bench though deciphered that the two-Judge bench did not mandate that all transfer petitions should be disallowed and take recourse to a video conferencing facility as an alternative. The larger bench also opined that the decision of the two-Judge bench was intended to help prevent delay in judicial proceedings and also reduce the pendency of piled-up matrimonial cases in the country.
The three-judge bench clarified that the decision of the two-Judge bench in Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam was not made as a mandate to take recourse to video conferencing in all transfer petitions filed before the court, particularly in matrimonial cases. As a result of this clarification, it set the coordinate courts and other courts from misconstruing the decision in Krishna Veni Nagam’s judgment and giving orders for video conferencing even at courts that have no such technology facilities available.
The legislative intent of The Family Courts Act 1984 was the primary aim of providing speedy settlement of matrimonial disputes along with reconciliation to the best possible extent. The larger bench held that the very purpose of this legislative intent would be defeated if Family courts gave priority to only speedy trial without taking into view the meeting of ends of justice for both the parties to the dispute. The bench further reiterated that there should be a balance of both speedy trial and justice which was the very purpose of the 1984 Act. In this regard, the bench also held that Family Court should primarily focus on reconciliation between the spouses and when it fails, then proceed to adjudicate with in-camera proceedings when either of the parties requests for it. Therefore there has to be a proper balance between the legislative intent of not only bringing conciliation between the parties in a matrimonial dispute but also speedy redressal by making use of the best possible mode such as video conferencing as well.
The observations of the Apex Court while answering the issues framed by it in the review petition may be enumerated as given below:
- The three-Judge bench concluded that the Family Courts have limited jurisdiction which cannot permeate the legislative intent as defined under the 1984 Act. The bench also held that as the legislative intent had not been brought out in Krishna Veni Nagam vs. Harish Nagam properly by Family Courts and High Courts, it could not be continued to operate and was overruled. The view opined by the three-Judge bench is rooted in the evaluation of legislative intent particularly the statement of objects and intents in the 1984 Act whereby the proper procedure to be followed for allowing video conferencing in transfer petition was not defined properly. If video conferencing was allowed as an alternative to transferring petitions then it will defeat the very idea of bringing about a settlement between spouses as specified under the 1984 Act.
- The three-Judge bench held that if video conferencing was allowed as an alternative to allowing transfer petition in matrimonial disputes then the rights of one of the party was bound to be jeopardized. The bench also held that only after the settlement process fails should the parties to the matrimonial dispute resort to seeking video conferencing instead of transfer of the case. The view taken by the bench is indeed correct as courts cannot have a blanket order allowing video conferencing as an alternative to transferring the petition in all matrimonial disputes which will fail the primary aim of the 1984 Act.
- The three-Judge bench dwelled into Section 11 of the 1984 Act which provides for in-camera proceedings. The bench remarked that only after all reconciliation measures failed should the court direct in-camera adjudication if one of the parties appeals accordingly. It is needless to say that Section 11 of the 1984 Act should be read in tandem with Section 23(2) of the 1955 Act which makes conciliation mandatory. Conciliation of the parties would be possible only when it takes place face to face and not in video conferencing where the physical proximity of the spouses is abysmal. Thus, to ensure the proper use of the provisions in the 1984 Act, the courts must exercise discretion in granting video conferencing as an alternative that defeats the very legislative purpose of providing justice to the parties. When there is a clash of intent between judicial discretion and legislative intent then the latter always prevails over the former to ensure that wrong judicial precedents are not set at any point in time.
Comparison with other similar cases
The decision taken by the two-judge bench in Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam cannot be said to be erroneous given the reasoning offered by the bench in its detailed judgment. The ultimate aim of law and justice should be to provide a resolution to the disputing parties which was very well addressed by the bench in this case.
The three-judge bench opined that allowing video conferencing defeated the purpose of reconciliation between couples when physical presence was not available. This may not be completely true as separated couples seeking divorce might be living in different locations making it impossible to attend court hearings which would further delay the entire judicial process.
The delays in proceedings might bring in more emotional distance between couples instead of reconciling them due to the frustration of delayed justice. As rightly said by the court in the case Yamini Dubey vs. Suraj Bajaj 4 that, video conferencing could not be directed in the transfer petition and that resumption of the trial was possible only when both parties agree. In this decision, the MP High court overruled the decision in the Krishna Veni Nagam case.
The Supreme court in the case of State of Maharashtra v. Dr. Praful B. Desai opined that the use of advanced technology such as video conferencing fully met the requirements of Section 273 of the Code of Criminal Procedure and therefore recording of evidence was according to the procedure established by law. Again in the case Malthesh G. Pooja vs. State of Karnataka 5 court laid down the principle that when with technological advancement review petitions should be heard using video conferencing especially when judges move from one bench to another.
Therefore it can be clearly understood that courts through their well-reasoned decisions have time again indicated that there is no definitive rule to be followed for permitting video conferencing and the same can be allowed as long as it helps meet the ends of justice for the parties to the trial.
Even though Family Courts have the discretionary powers to allow either a transfer petition it may be best in the interest of justice to take into consideration all the factors so that the ends of justice are met for the intended parties in matrimonial disputes. This will in principle ensure that even the intent of the legislation is not defeated at all times. The overruling of the decision in Krishna Veni Nagam’s Case is indeed a landmark decision by the larger bench wherein in a transfer petition video conferencing was not permissible.
Nevertheless, the larger bench should have also taken into consideration the fact that with the advancement in technology and its use in every walk of life, it may be worthy to offer video conferencing as an alternative to the physical court appearance. While the larger bench has given valid reasons for not allowing the same, it may look at allowing video conferencing with more specific directions to Family Courts as to under what circumstances it may be allowed. With the rising inflation index, video conferencing can be looked at as one of the best alternatives for litigants as it helps not only save litigation costs but also ensures that the litigants undergo the least amount of inconvenience. It can also reduce the burden on the courts with cases piling up to huge volumes day by day. It will be wise to introduce video conferencing as a new normal process in all kinds of litigation and not just matrimonial disputes with all necessary requisites so that the interests of justice are met at the end of the day for every citizen of the country.
- Krishna Veni Nagam v. Harish Nagam 2017 (4) SCC 150.[↩]
- Santhini v. Vijaya Venketesh (2018) 1 SCC 1.[↩]
- Anindita Das v. Srijit Das (2006) 9 SCC 197.[↩]
- Yamini Dubey v. Suraj Bajaj MP 2784 of 2020.[↩]
- Malthesh G. Pooja v. State of Karnataka (2011) 15 SCC 330.[↩]
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