The global outbreak of COVID-19 or the coronavirus, which has been declared a pandemic, has had far-reaching consequences. Efforts to limit its spread and treat all those seen with the slightest symptoms have left governments worried. The turmoil associated with it has not only affected the health of citizens but all spheres of life—economic, financial, political, educational, travel and tourism, aviation…. In fact, it has simply changed the way we live.
The government through a notification on March 5, 2020, advised that mass gatherings be avoided, and if possible, be postponed till the spread of COVID-19 is contained. In these circumstances, the judiciary too has made attempts to ensure the safety and well-being of litigants, judges, advocates, visitors and staff. Notices and circulars have been issued by different courts in India, starting with the Supreme Court, with various directions to curb the spread of this deadly virus.
A Supreme Court circular on March 13, 2020, said that only six benches would be sitting. This was further reduced to four on March 19. The Court restricted the functioning of courts to only urgent matters and directed that only lawyers who were going to argue a case be allowed in. It also restricted the visits of casual visitors and non-essential work. All cafeterias, including the departmental canteen in the Court premises and the Supreme Court Museum, remain closed. The guided tour in the Court too has been suspended. The Court premises have been stocked with alcohol-based sanitisers and all common areas such as restrooms, corridors and staircases are to be sanitised on a daily basis.
In addition, a self-declaration form has been introduced for entry into the premises. Details regarding a visit to a foreign country in the last 15 days and any symptoms of fever, sore throat, runny nose, cough or breathing problems have to be filled in. The Court has also asked everyone to be well aware of the regulations issued in this regard, particularly on “screening” and “dealing with suspect and symptomatic cases”. It has also said that the guidelines for home quarantine, use of masks by the public and do’s and don’ts issued by the health ministry be followed.
Every person entering the Supreme Court has to subject himself to thermal screening and if anyone is detected with high body temperature, he will not only be denied entry but be subject to the standard operating procedure prescribed by the health ministry. All lawyers and litigants from across the country who want to avoid visiting the Court will be allowed to do so on request and their matters will not be listed. All those entering the Courts have been advised not to crowd at any spot to ensure their safety and that of others and to exit as soon as their official business is over.
In a direct interaction with journalists in the Court, Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde agreed that there would be a daily briefing of the day’s news and prompt uploading of orders on the website. He also stated that restrictions due to COVID-19 cannot be relaxed for journalists. The CJI had called an urgent meeting to discuss the steps required to be taken for the functioning of all courts in the country in the wake of the coronavirus. It was attended by Justices Arun Mishra, UU Lalit, DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao. He had stated that there cannot be a complete shutdown of courts but a limited one is required as virtual courts are on the verge of commencement.
Justice Chandrachud, being the chairman of the Supreme Court E-Committee, has assured that soon people-to-people contact will be reduced and video-conferencing will be introduced where separate rooms for the counsel for each of the parties will be made available in the apex court premises. CJI Bobde along with Justices Nageswara Rao, Ashok Bhushan and Sanjay K Kaul took a round of the Supreme Court to ensure that the directions issued by the Court were being followed by lawyers. They took note of crowd management and other matters and questioned lawyers on why the Court was still crowded.
Safety measures are also being taken by the High Court and district courts. Through a notification on March 13, the Delhi High Court informed that it would only be hearing matters which are urgent and dates would be given in routine matters before the Court assembles. It also issued an advisory to district courts that they should not insist on the presence of parties unless unavoidable and appropriate measures should be taken to regulate the entry of litigants and the public in the court complex to avoid overcrowding. In the absence of the parties concerned, adverse orders shall not be passed by courts and adjournments should be allowed, it said. Written submissions should be called for and the time for oral submissions should be reduced. Video-conferencing should be put to optimum use for the purposes of recording of evidence and physical production of undertrials from jails should be avoided.
District and sessions judges were also advised to consult prison authorities and take steps to curtail unnecessary crowding in lock-ups. The High Court has also advised that medical dispensaries in courts should be equipped to deal with the present situation, sanitisers be made available for everyone and the housekeeping staff be asked to ensure that the highest level of hygiene is maintained in the court complex and disinfectants sprayed on a regular basis.
Meanwhile, this outbreak has even affected exam schedules. The Delhi Higher Judicial Service (Mains) Examination-2019, scheduled to be held on March 14 and 15, and the viva voce of the Delhi Judicial Service Examination-2019, scheduled to be held from March 23, have been postponed. New dates will be notified later.
High courts on alert
High courts all over the country have released a slew of instructions to curb the spread of the coronavirus
Punjab and Haryana High Court: Instructions from the Court said rotation arrangement of officials in different sessions divisions be made to reduce footfall in the premises and all regular listed cases be adjourned. All fresh criminal and civil matters will be listed by mentioning only. Medical teams with thermal guns will be deployed at each entry gate and litigants will not be required to come unless specifically ordered.
Bombay High Court: Courts in the High Court as well as benches will listen only to urgent matters, entry of litigants is restricted and orders of ad interim and interim relief shall continue to operate.
Madhya Pradesh High Court: Only cases filed in 2020 will be listed in the daily causelist while those filed up to 2019 will stand adjourned. Work will be restricted to urgent matters. The presence of parties must not be insisted upon.
High Court of Meghalaya: Only urgent matters to be taken up to avoid mass gathering, video-conferencing to be used at the lock-up, screening for everyone entering the Court, premises to be vacated at 6 pm and sanitised thereafter.
Patna High Court: Organise an awareness camp in the premises, physical presence of parties not to be insisted upon, entry of litigants and the public to be regulated, mediation proceedings to be postponed and no functions to be organised.
Kerala High Court: Total restriction on entry unless summoned by the Court. Mediation and adalat proceedings to be suspended, frequent sanitisation and thermal screening to be ensured.
The Coordination Committee of the District Courts also passed a resolution on March 15 requesting that court buildings be sanitised regularly, temperature guns be used at the entry gates and lawyers be asked to not gather in groups. Lawyers of district courts have been asked to abstain from work and attend urgent hearings only such as bail, stay, etc. The advisory has also requested judges to not order any dismissal on grounds of default or have evidence recorded, consider the applications for condonation of limitation period and adjourn regular matters.
In the case of National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT) benches, they will only take up matters which require urgent hearing on request by the concerned parties. It will adjourn the remaining matters listed before March 27 and parties and counsel presence will not be compulsory. An NCLT notice also directed that there be restricted use of air conditioners as low temperatures could aggravate the problem.
The National Consumer Commission too has decided to adjourn all matters till April 15 and will only hear urgent matters. For the convenience of counsel, the Commission has clarified matters that will be treated as urgent matters, including the stay of arrest warrants, orders which cannot be deferred till the next hearing, etc. Urgent matters will only be listed after prior approval of the listing officers and filing of an affidavit by the applicant. The Commission has also directed that only advocates who have to argue, along with one party, will be allowed to enter the courtrooms. Fresh matters will only be filed and not listed till April 15. The Commission has also clarified that any person suffering from COVID-19 or showing symptoms like fever, dry cough or breathlessness will not be allowed to enter the premises. Also, advocates and litigants entering the Commission have to ensure that no material filed or brought by them is contaminated in any manner.
The fear of the coronavirus has begun to grind the scales of justice as judges and lawyers struggle to balance the constitutional rights of people against the concern of transmission to multiple people. But the steps that are being taken are required considering the number of identified cases of COVID-19 in India, the severe risk it poses to the public and the recommendations of public health authorities.
Lead Picture: UNI