Tele-evidence comes to the rescue of overburdened medical doctorsA Aggrawal
Department of Forensic Medicine, Maulana Azad Medical College, New Delhi, India
Medical doctors, especially forensic specialists have been attending courts all over India as part and parcel of their duty.
It has been observed that while in the West, tendering of medical evidence is a painless procedure, but in India, doctors waste a lot of time in fruitless pursuits, for example, commuting to the courts, waiting endlessly for their turn to tender evidence, and then when the turn finally comes, waiting even for the lawyer of the defense! At a rough guess, out of every three visits to courts, doctors are able to tender evidence in only two cases. The evidence in the remaining one case is not given for a variety of reasons. Sample some of the common reasons: judge is on leave; judge came but is now away for some important meeting; public prosecutor is on leave; defense lawyer is on leave; there is a strike by lawyers; the court building is undergoing repairs; there is a strike by karmcharis of the court; the accused could not be brought from jail; the reader is on leave; one of the parties is sick, or is attending a marriage; the nayab court is on leave and so on. When the court is within the city where the doctor resides or carries on his professional practice, the wastage of time is about 3–4 h, but when the court is outside the place of work, doctors are known to waste almost an entire day. In such situations, it is not unknown for doctors to spend most of the day commuting to the courts, only to be told that evidence could not be taken for one of the reasons mentioned earlier.
No statistics is available on how many human-hours (doctor-hours or specialist-hours to be exact) are wasted in this way. However, a guess can be made based on available evidence.
There are 707 districts in India today, having nearly 650 district and sessions courts. If on an average, about one medical evidence is not taken per day, per court, the total number of failed visits to the court comes to 650 specialist-hours in one day. And this is the figure for just higher courts (district and sessions courts). There are a vast number of smaller courts. Thus the actual figure of wasted specialist-hours should be huge. Consider the physical and mental strain due to failed journeys, increased traffic on roads, traffic jams, and increasing pollution (both noise and air). There is an unexplored angle of disappointed patients returning home (or to their offices) after waiting endlessly at the doctor's office, who himself is waiting at the court for giving his evidence. If some of these patients are responsible officers, consider the number of people waiting at their offices, and one can go on ad nauseam!
Obviously the best way to get out of this vicious circle of time wastage is to go for video conferencing. When a doctor remains at his workplace and tenders evidence in a court of law through live audio–video electronic means, it is variously known as video conferencing, tele-conferencing, or tele-evidence.
There was a time (preinternet days), when audio and video technologies in court were viewed with some measure of doubt and suspicion. But with gradual emergence of these technologies, perceptions began to change. This technology is now routinely used in Western countries both in criminal and civil trials.
It is surprising it has not gained wide acceptance in Indian courts, despite section 275 CrPC not only allowing but encouraging tendering of tele-evidence.
To be sure, video conferencing has happened in this country, albeit only in very important and significant cases. In December 16, 2012 Delhi gang rape victim (Nirbhaya case), who died in Singapore on December 29, 2012, the statement of Dr. Paul Chui, senior consultant, forensic pathology, Mount Elizabeth Hospital, Singapore was recorded through video conferencing on February 25, 2013, in the court of additional sessions judge Yogesh Khanna. Dr. Chui had conducted the autopsy on the victim.
So is tele-conferencing doomed to be limited only to cases that hog the medial limelight? Thankfully no. It is satisfying to note that it has started at many teaching hospitals in Punjab and Haryana.
Tele-conferencing would be extremely valuable, if the doctor has left job and has migrated to a foreign country. In a number of such cases, despite the fact that the whereabouts of the doctor are known, he cannot normally be called because of huge amount of expenses involved. In such subpoenas, the medical superintendent has no choice but to send a record clerk instead, with the register of medical legal reports (MLRs). The clerk's job is only to verify the signatures! Obviously the defense lawyer cannot cross-examine him, nor can the judge ask him any questions. Even a medical practitioner, if sent in his place, would refuse – quite rightly – to answer any question related to the MLR. The tradition thus is to send just a record clerk. Some cases are on record, where no one –doctors included – could read the handwriting, and thus medical evidence had to be discarded. Imagine the value of tele-conferencing in such situations!
There are fears that a wide-ranging acceptance of tele-conferencing may encourage doctors to tender their evidences through surrogates. This indeed is possible, but there is no record of this happening so far. Of course the number of tele-conferencing events itself is very small currently. The situation will become clearer as we proceed in this direction. Surely new legislation can be enacted to curb this practice.
Tele-conferencing involves no confidentiality issues, because according to section 327 CrPC, all courts are to be open courts to which the public generally may have access. The confidentiality issue arises only in cases that are to be conducted “in camera” (e.g., rape, sexual assault, and Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) cases). In such cases, the doctor may be called, if it is feared that the doctor would not maintain confidentiality at his end.
Tampering of evidence may not be a concern, because the doctor has already submitted the original copy of MLR to the police, and that copy is already in the court. The doctor is reading and opining merely from the carbon copy.
The current issue of the journal is publishing a well-organized and timely study into the benefits of tendering evidence through video conferencing. The authors studied summon details, log books of vehicles, feedback of doctors, and a lot of other parameters over a fixed period of time to determine if tele-evidence really had some utility, and quite predictably discovered that there was immense saving not only in doctor's time, but also in physical and mental strain, personal expenditure, and professional duty loss. Hopefully very soon we will enter an era, where doctors' physical attendance in courts of law would be a thing of the past, and they would only be tendering evidence through tele-conferencing.