New Delhi: On 1 September, the Supreme Court opened its doors for lawyers after a period of 17 months. The court had begun hearing matters through video-conferencing after the country went into a lockdown owing to the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in March last year.
However, there seem to be few takers for physical hearings as the first three days saw most lawyers opting to appear for hearings through video conference.
For instance, on Day 1, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana’s court began with over 90 lawyers logged in virtually. In some courtrooms, no one appeared physically throughout the day.
The second day at CJI’s court began with over 50 participants, all appearing virtually. The third day, which was a Friday designated exclusively for virtual hearings, began with over 150 participants logged in.
Supreme Court advocate Shivam Singh said the physical hearings have received a “lukewarm response” from Supreme Court lawyers.
He told ThePrint, “Since all courts have provided the opportunity of hybrid hearings, lawyers have found it more prudent to conduct hearings from their screens.”
Singh also blamed it on logistical issues and on the apprehension of a third wave, saying, “There is also the worry that once in physical court, lawyers cannot effectively attend virtual hearings before other courtrooms. To avoid these logistical hurdles and due to the fear of an impending third wave, people have found it more prudent to skip physical appearances.”
‘Hybrid option’, special hearing passes
The Secretary General of the Supreme Court had issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) for physical hearings to begin from 1 September with a ‘hybrid option’. The SOP dated 28 August said regular appeals or old matters would have the option of being heard physically on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. On Monday and Fridays, the hearing of fresh/miscellaneous matters would continue to be heard through videoconferencing.
The SOP also said the entry of lawyers and parties into the high security zone of the court to appear for physical hearings will only be through daily ‘special hearing passes’ which will be issued by the Registry, on the basis of authorisation by the concerned Advocate-on-record on the portal.
Additionally, it limited the number of lawyers in courtrooms to 20 at a time, and said that in matters where more than 20 persons appear physically, the concerned Supreme Court bench will have the discretion to adjourn the matter and hear the case through videoconferencing mode.
SOP a ‘non-starter’
However, a day after this SOP was issued, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) wrote a letter to the CJI asserting that “the SOP is a nonstarter as our members would not like to take the options for physical hearing with so many conditions attached”.
It had raised objections to several clauses of the SOP, including the 20 lawyer limit in the courtrooms, calling it “arbitrary as the size of the courtroom differs substantially”.
The letter also claimed that prohibiting entry of lawyers into the high-security area — which has bar rooms, libraries, canteens etc — without special passes would “dissuade” lawyers from applying for physical hearing.
The SCBA had then called for the resumption of the normal functioning of the court “at the earliest”, talking about the fall in positivity rate, the possibility of India having entered the endemic stage of Covid-19 and the fact that Delhi has eased restrictions with public spaces like malls, cinema halls, marriages, parties and restaurants having opened up. The letter had even asserted that the fear of the third wave “does not justify restricting the functioning of the Supreme Court now”.
‘Don’t treat SC as Wuhan lab’
Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) president, senior advocate Vikas Singh continues to blame such restrictions in the SOP for there being few takers for physical hearing and called for resumption of the normal functioning of the top court.
Criticising restrictions like the need for special passes, he told ThePrint, “It (Supreme Court) has been our abode, our place of work. We actually belong to that place, but suddenly we have been made strangers. This is completely unacceptable to us.”
“This form of restrictive physical hearing with so many conditions is not acceptable to the bar. If everything else has opened, don’t treat the Supreme Court as a Wuhan lab, that the moment it opens, it’ll spread infection in the entire country. It’s like any other place,” he added.
Singh pointed out that most lawyers and Supreme Court staff members are now fully vaccinated and said, “I want the Supreme Court to open completely. If there is a mutation of the virus at some later stage and if cases start spiking, we can take a call then.”
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