New Delhi: As the country continues to remain under a lockdown due to the Covid-19 outbreak, the Supreme Court and the Delhi High Court are gearing up to enhance their existing facilities for better management as well as initiate precautionary measures so that court premises do not turn into Covid-19 hotspots.
According to sources in the SC, the top court is planning to improve its e-filing system in the next 15 days. A source said this would hopefully reduce the number of people queuing up at counters to file cases.
On a regular day, around 150 to 200 cases are filed at the counters in the Supreme Court.
In front of the filing counters, the court is planning to draw circles on the ground so that people can stand in them at a distance.
Additionally, Supreme Court officials at the counters will no longer be in a face-to-face position with those filing cases as they would be sitting “diagonally” instead, said the source.
The apex court is also in touch with experts from the ICMR and AIIMS to know what chemical can be used to sanitise the court building’s passages. The SC officials are currently trying to obtain approval for a sanitising chemical that can be used on the premises without harming people, said the source.
The court is also planning to raise the number of virtual benches to five from two. These benches hear cases via video conference.
As for the modalities of hearing once the court reopens, SC officials are basing their discussions on the 2018 Swapnil Tripathi v Supreme Court of India judgment, in which the Supreme Court authorised live-streaming of court proceedings.
During the hearings, certain restrictions that were put in place before the complete lockdown, will be reintroduced.
For instance, the number of lawyers allowed to go inside the court per party in a case would be restricted to three, and only lawyers for the first six listed cases will be allowed to go in.
‘Courts cannot be converted into hotspots’
As for the Delhi High Court, a letter has been sent by the court’s registrar general to the Chairman of Bar Council of Delhi K.C. Mittal about a “graded action-plan”.
According to the letter, the plan will be created by a committee that has been constituted by Chief Justice of the high court Justice D.N. Patel. This committee will be headed by Justice Hima Kohli of the high court.
The letter dated 21 April, accessed by ThePrint, highlighted the necessity of a “phased/graded restoration to normalcy plan” and sought Mittal’s suggestions within a week on the issues that are required to be addressed.
It also stated that courts expect a “deluge of fresh cases” that could be filed once they reopen after the lockdown. This is because due to Covid-19, the Delhi High Court and lower courts in the national capital have not been functioning and hearings have been limited to only extremely urgent cases.
It then asserted that “courts cannot be converted into hotspots” and, therefore, “it may not be practicable to open the courts for everyone immediately after the lockdown is lifted”.
The letter also acknowledged that it may not be possible to predict a definite date for resumption of normal functioning of the court.
Contacted, Mittal told ThePrint he has already circulated the letter to all the council members and has also sought suggestions from senior members of the bar.
“I am consulting with all the members and some senior members of the bar also, because this is a matter concerning everybody and we would like to have good suggestions,” he said.
“An important issue that’s especially troubling us is the centralised air conditioning, with reports saying that it is a source of spread of Covid-19,” he added.
Entry restrictions & alternative to central AC
The letter listed out issues to be addressed for formulation of an action plan.
These include “gradual expansion” of cases that would be considered urgent, and availability of infrared thermometers, masks and sanitisers.
The high court is also contemplating guidelines to restrict entry into courts. The letter stated all stakeholders, including judges, staff, lawyers and litigants, might have to follow social distancing norms in the court complexes even after the lockdown.
Additionally, guidelines could be put in place for restricting entry into the lawyers’ chamber areas in the court complex. Social distancing must also be followed in those areas, according to the letter.
The high court is also exploring an appropriate alternative to centralised air conditioning.
As for the case hearings, the committee is considering putting in place a mechanism for handling of fresh cases. This includes assessment of the need to initially allow filing of only urgent cases or cases where the period of limitation might be expiring, the letter said.
The nature of the filing — online or manual — to be allowed is also being deliberated upon, it added.
In case hard copies are allowed, the court will have to consider additional safeguards on handling these to rule out chances of an infection. A “centralised filing counter” and petition boxes may be put in place, according to the letter.
Well-equipped permanent video conferencing courts, and creation of a mixed model of ‘virtual and actual courts’ is also being thought of, the letter added.