Friday, December 2, 2022

Role Of Supreme Court In The Era Of COVID-19

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While the country and people all over the world are battling with an unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic whose severity and unpredictability had put everything on hold, the Indian Judiciary was busy attempting to devise means to ensure justice to the citizens.  

While apex Court has been appreciated for taking up matters through the medium of Video Conferencing, it has also been criticized for not taking prompt decision on the migrant issue. However the Supreme Court has been dealing with a large number of Public Interest Litigations and Writ Petitions regarding various issues surrounding the pandemic.

Migrant issue

Subsequent to the announcement of the lockdown by the Government of India, one of the major issue which came before the Supreme Court was the migrant issue where large scale migrant started walking on foot to reach their homes amid the COVID 19 lockdown.

Two PILs were filed before the SC which were  heard on March 30 seeking basic amenities for migrant workers stranded in various parts of the country due to the lock down, taken up by a Bench consisting of the Chief Justice and Justice L Nageswara Rao. 

Initially Supreme Court declined to interfare in the migrant labour issue , however after several criticism and letters addressed to the Chief Justice by  jurists and ex-judges requesting to provide relief to the migrants, the apex Court on May 26 took up  a suo motu writ petition on the Problems and Miseries of Migrant Labourers and issued interim order on May 28, directing  free train and bus travel for the migrants to their destinations, free food and water during the journey, prompt registration procedures and free health screening on arrival at their destinations.  

Issues Relating To De-Congestion of Prisons  

On March 24 the Supreme Court ordered all states and Union Territories to set up high-level panels which would consider releasing all convicts who have been jailed for up to seven years on parole to decongest jails in an attempt to contain the Covid-19 outbreak. The bench suggested that undertrials awaiting trial for offences entailing maximum sentence of seven years also be extended a similar benefit.

On June 5, the Supreme Court refused to issue general directions to release under trial prisoners due to COVID-19 stating that it is an issue to be considered by the Jurisdictional High Courts.

Issue relating to Provisions for Healthcare workers

The Supreme Court had in the first week of April heard a bunch of petitions regarding the need to provide medical professionals, and the attacks on medical officers while being on duty, etc. A bench headed by Justice Ashok Bhushan, calling these healthcare workers Corona warriors had said that such attacks instill a sense of insecurity in doctors and medical staff from which it is expected by society that they are looking to the call of their duties will protect citizen from disease of COVID-19.

On April 27, the Supreme Court heard another petition seeking provision for PPE for health workers including doctors, nurses, ward boys, medical and para-medical professionals who are working in non- coronavirus treatment areas, keeping in view that the deadly infection could be contracted from asymptomatic patients as well.  A three-judge bench comprising of Justice NV Ramana, Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and BR Gavai had directed the government to examine this issue and make necessary suggestions in the rational use of PPE guidelines so that the PPEs are provided to all health officials, who are working in non-COVID treatment areas.

The Supreme Court on June 12 while hearing a petition Dr Aarushi Jain vs Union of India seeking a separate accommodation for doctors and healthcare workers near hospitals, noted that welfare of Doctors and frontline healthcare workers is a matter of concern and the government cannot work half-heartedly . The Court noted that their welfare was a matter of concern and that these warriors cannot be left unsatisfied.

Issue of Private Hospitals charging excess COVID 19 treatment fees 

A Bench headed by CJI Bobde last week asked for government’s response to whether COVID-19 patients, who are not beneficiaries under the Ayushman Bharat Scheme, can be treated in private hospitals at the same subsidized rates offered under the scheme. The petitioner Advocate Sachin Jain argued that COVID-19 treatment costs only Rs.4000 for an Ayushman Bharat beneficiary in a private hospital, while others have to spend at least  Rs.50,000 for treatment in the same hospital.

The Court asked the Centre why private hospitals which had been given land free of cost can’t treat Covid-19 patients free of cost and also ordered the Centre to identify hospitals where Covid-19 patients can be treated free of cost or at minimal costs.

A Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan had also recently issued notice in a petition filed by Avishek Goenka, who contended that private hospitals were charging exorbitant amounts to treat COVID-19 patients.

 Issue relating to Treatment of Patients and Dead bodies during COVID-19

The Supreme Court on June 12th lashed out at State Governments and hospitals for the manner in which the Covid dead bodies are dealt with and said the situation in some cases was worse than what animals have to suffer.

Issue relating to spread of COVID-19 in Childrens Home

The Supreme Court on June 11 took Suo Motu cognizance of news reports of 35 children in a shelter Home in Roypuram, Chennai who tested positive for COVID 19.

The bench comprising Justice L. Nageswara Rao, Justice Krishna Murari and Justice S. Ravindra Bhat has directed the State of Tamil Nadu to file a status report on the issue of spread of COVID in the shelter homes and the steps taken for safeguarding the health of the remaining children.

 Issue of  air travelers

The Supreme Court on June 12th has asked for a response from Airlines regarding the full refund of fare for airline tickets that are booked during the COVID-19 lockdown period, and has also directed the the Ministry of Civil Aviation (MCA) to convene a meeting to sort the technicalities involved in this issue. The Court also stated that if a credit shell is being given, then it should be of atleast two years.

 Issue  Relating  to Payment Of Salaries By Private Employers To Their Employees During The Lockdown Period

The Supreme Court on Friday June 12, on a batch of pleas challenging the MHAs notification to pay full salaries to the employees during the lockdown period has directed parties to mutually settle the matter between them.

The bench while reiterating its earlier order said that no coercive action will be taken against private factory or industry owners unable to pay full wages to workers during the 54 days of lockdown.

The bench has directed the State governments to facilitate settlements between employers and employees. Further if no settlement is reached, the employers and employees have been directed to approach the Labour Commissioner.

While adjourning the matter, the Court said that it will hear the parties in the last week of July if any issues on wages arise.  

India Legal Bureau

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