India’s apex court, the Supreme Court of India hasn’t put in place an exit plan for return to normalcy as the government relaxes lockdown restrictions, prompting comparisons with the Delhi High Court, which has created a committee to come up with a plan on this and also asked all district, sessions, and family courts to do so in anticipation of a flurry of filings post-lockdown.
The Delhi High Court has also passed a resolution to work through June , when it is supposed to be on summer break. The apex court hasn’t said anything on this count. The Supreme Court suspended its regular functioning on March 23 and began hearing cases through video conferencing a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the national lockdown in view of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, the court has functioned in a limited manner hearing only those cases which it deems extremely urgent.
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Up until April 24, the top court sat for hearing on 17 working days with a total of 34 benches hearing cases through video conferencing. It heard a total of 593 cases and delivered 41 judgments. These numbers are far less when compared to the SC’s functioning in normal times when at least 500 to 700 cases are heard on a single day. On a typical day, 10 benches or more hear cases, with exception of Constitutional benches.
Senior advocate and President, Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA), Dushyant Dave said doors of justice cannot be shut and steps should be taken to ensure normal functioning. “We have virtually shut down our judicial system. Even countries like England are facing serious challenges but haven’t shut their judiciary.”
Dave added while physical hearing might not be possible, the court should invest in functioning virtually and all its benches should sit on all days to ensure more cases are heard through video conferencing. “The Supreme Court should work fully through video conferencing. All sixteen courts should sit on all days and list as many cases as they can. It would not be difficult to list before each bench at least 25 to 30 cases for admission and five cases for final hearing daily,” Dave said.
Senior counsel Rebecca John echoed this sentiment. “The Supreme Court is (currently) sitting like a vacation bench. It should work all days of the week like trial courts and Delhi High Court. There should be more benches hearing the matter. The endeavour should be to increase number of cases that can be heard,”John said. “The Delhi High Court keeps sending out fresh notifications and instructions to trial courts and lawyers almost every day. That kind of conversation is not happening in the Supreme Court,” she added.
Dave also pointed out that thousands of cases are piled up in the apex court for admission. “I would request the chief justice and colleagues in SC to increase number of cases for hearing, increase the number of hours of the hearings. They may consider working on Saturdays,” Dave said.
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However, senior advocate and former additional solicitor general Maninder Singh felt there is no pressing need for the apex court to revert to normal functioning. “I have not come across public pressing for opening courts. I have not seen any news on print or electronic media about people saying their case is not being heard. This is also because all industrial and economic activity has come to a standstill and crime rates have also reduced”, he said.
Attorney General KK Venugopal too defended the SC and said it reverting to normal functioning through physical hearings during Covid may not be desirable. But if it does, and an open hearing is necessary, abundant precaution should be taken, he said. “Open court hearing in a regulated manner is a solution. There could be an annex room with screens for live streaming from each court room,” the AG suggested. This will help curb the crowding in Supreme Court’s corridors and inside courts, he added. “But this would require co-operation from lawyers. There should also be 12 to 13 screens streaming proceedings.”
He added he hasn’t faced any issues with the current video conferencing facility but Dave said technological improvements are necessary and suggested SC explore private softwares. “Proceedings at Supreme Court are open. There is nothing wrong in using technology including Zoom, etc.,”, Dave suggested.
He also did not hide his disappointment over the fact the apex court has not announced any decision yet on whether it will cancel its summer break. “The executive committee of SCBA had passed resolutions twice and requested the chief justice to scrap the summer vacation but I don’t know what is holding them back. I am personally deeply disappointed they have not cancelled summer break,” said Dave.
Maninder Singh disagreed pointing out the top court takes vacation during the summer for around 6 to 7 weeks every year and addition of another 4 to 5 weeks to this year won’t make a difference.