New Delhi: The Supreme Court is likely to resume open-court hearings in the first week of September, almost five months after it restricted itself to virtual proceedings due to the Covid-19 lockdown, ThePrint has learnt.
On Tuesday, a seven-judge panel, set up by Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, to explore the possibility of resuming open-court hearings had held detailed discussions on the issue and proposed a combination of physical and virtual proceedings.
Headed by Justice N.V. Ramana, the panel has agreed to hold open-court hearings three times a week — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — on a trial basis. However, the number of courtrooms will be restricted to three or five, sources in know of the development told ThePrint.
Final argument matters are likely to be heard by benches that will assemble in the open. Appeals in death penalty cases, life imprisonment and matrimonial disputes are expected to get priority for physical hearings. Rest will be argued before virtual courts.
The decision to partially resume physical court hearings was taken after the panel interacted with senior medical experts and members of the bar. Their suggestions were incorporated before finalising the details, a senior registry official told ThePrint on the condition of anonymity.
A day before the Covid-19 lockdown was imposed on 24 March, lawyers and litigants were barred from entering the court premises. Since then, the top court has been holding digital proceedings of urgent matters only via video conferencing.
High courts were also later asked to operate similarly. Administrative orders were subsequently issued by the high courts to subordinate judiciary to hear cases through video-conferencing.
’48 working hours needed to get courtrooms ready’
The panel met amid pressing demands from the bar to resume physical functioning of the courts. Several bar members had complained about technical glitches during virtual proceedings and lack of work on account of restricted court hearings.
The bar representatives Tuesday asked for an immediate resumption of physical courts.
They agreed with the judges’ view to not hold open-court hearings on Monday and Friday, when fresh cases are taken up.
“On these two days, each court hears a minimum of 70 cases due to which the rooms get overcrowded. The lawyers accepted that this could pose a risk to them as well as the court staff,” the senior court registry official said.
To make sure government guidelines on social distancing are followed during open-court hearings, changes will be made to the interiors of courtrooms. Forty-eight working hours are needed to transform each room, the officer quoted above said.
Glass partitions shall be installed and extra seats will be removed to accommodate only two lawyers in a case. No junior counsel or a lawyer’s clerk will be permitted inside the courtroom, the officer added.
Open-courts hearing for half a day
The medical experts who participated in the meeting cautioned against long working periods for open courts, stating that masks should not be worn for over three hours.
Based on this opinion, the panel decided to hold open-court hearings for half a day between 10.30 am and 1.30 pm. To avoid congregations in corridors, the courtrooms will be earmarked in such a way that they do not fall in the same zone.
“Cases in the final hearing stage, that require judges and lawyers to peruse paper records, will be taken up for hearing. Matters from the final hearing list published before the lockdown will be listed before the courts,” another officer told ThePrint.
Shivaji Jadhav, president of Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association (SCAORA), who attended the deliberations welcomed the move to resume court hearings.
He said, “When the entire country is in an unlock phase then why should courts continue with restricted functioning. Only schools and cinema halls are shut as of now. Even government offices have opened up after seeking medical advice. Lawyers cannot wait for indefinite time. Even litigants are suffering.”