COVID-19: Indian Judicial System Moving Beyond the Traditional Conventions of ‘In-Court’ Hearings
Advocate, Delhi High Court, New Delhi (India)
The outbreak of COVID-19 rapidly escalated into a global pandemic. The 1918 influenza pandemic killed approximately 50 million people and arguably as high as 100 million in 1918–1920. As a driver of incremental mortality in the last century, few other events even compare: total deaths from World War II are estimated to be between 35 and 60 million, and HIV/AIDS has killed nearly 40 million people since the start of the epidemic.
Moreover, despite enormous advances in medicine and scientific understanding, and the containment of recent pandemic threats such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), H1N1 influenza, and, eventually, Ebola, we should not be complacent about future risks. The draft COVID-19 ‘Operational planning guidelines to support country preparedness and response’ prepared by WHO on 12th February, 2020 as Strategic Preparedness and Response Plan of 12th February, 2020 prepared by WHO outlined the public health measures that need to be taken to support countries to prepare for and respond to COVID-19.
The preparedness and response plan urged political action in order to prepare for health emergency and to mitigate the effects of the global health emergency. The health emergency preparedness and response plan required not only State actors to be involved in the process but also community-participation and engagement that included identifying trusted community groups. Thus in essence it required each and every sector of the society to prepare for the health emergency and prepare a response plan to mitigate the effects of the health emergency.
COVID – 19 hugely impacted all of us from all walks of life, and the legal fraternity is no exception. The world is facing a major economic crisis due to loss of manpower, retrenchment, lay-off and closure of businesses. Finance Ministry, Government of India on 19.02.2020 issued an office memorandum stating that the current pandemic as a force majeure event. In the light of the global outbreak of COVID-19 the Government of India came out with several advisories, guidelines and notifications/orders keeping in mind the safety of the people.
The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India issued an office Memorandum on 5.03.2020 cautioning against mass gathering and mass congregation. The Indian Judicial system while maintaining it’s reputation to administer justice started hearing matters of urgency initially by reducing the individual presence in the court room and thereafter by enabling video conferencing facility. The courts had started taking strict precautionary measures from 13th March, 2020. The Supreme Court of India being the highest court in India exhibiting statesmanship issued notification to minimize physical presence in courts. Immediately thereafter the respective lower courts had started taking precautionary measures to declutter the crowded courts in India. There were temperature guns at every entry point of the Courts to test the temperature of lawyers and litigants entering the premises.
The Supreme Court, High Courts and lower courts were hearing only matters of urgency. The physical presence in the courts were reduced and the Supreme Court of India and High Courts adapted to video conferencing to hear matters of urgency. The courts had asked the lawyers and staff members to vacate their premises for sanitation. The Indian Judicial system moved beyond the traditional conventions of ‘In Court’ hearing to hearing matters via video conference.
During these testing times when the economy is on standstill and the courts are closed, it was not just the Indian Judiciary that took on the leadership role. The Bar Council of India, State Bar Councils and the State Bar Associations demonstrated a great sense of responsibility towards the fraternity by announcing Financial Assistance for lawyers in financial need during the lockdown. The Supreme Court Bar Association started a COVID-19 helpline scheme for providing financial assistance to lawyers in need during the lockdown period. The Delhi High Court Bar Association was the first amongst the other State Bar Associations to extend ex-gratia relief to advocates who have been severely affected by the lockdown. The Bombay Bar Association extended help to both members of the bar and non-members in providing financial assistance. Kerela High Court Lawyer Association launched junior scheme to help junior lawyers.
The Bar Council of Delhi invited applications from advocates who are in financial need in light of loss of income due to the lockdown. The money is being transferred directly to advocates bank accounts from the allocated fund of USD 303560 (i.e Rupees Two Crore Thirty One Lacs and Ninety Five Thousand). The Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry called for application up till April 20, 2020 and mobilised close to USD 87688 (i.e. Rupees Sixty Seven Lakhs) as lockdown relief fund. Karnataka State Bar Council (KSBC) launched a KSBC Covd-19 Advocates Relief Fund to help young, women and financially strapped lawyers practicing in the State. Odisha Bar Council issued financial assistance scheme to assist young lawyers having less than 10 year practice. The Allahabad High Court while hearing a case suo-moto sought detailed report from Bar Council of India as well as UP Star Bar Council regarding assistance to the needy advocates and the steps taken by them to ensure their well-being.
The pandemic has made us realise not just the value of human life, but also a sense of solidarity and empathy that has never been experienced before. There seems to be a transformation and evolution in approach where the old conventional ways are giving way to the new normal. The need for space to conduct a hearing is no more an obstacle with video conferencing being introduced. Moreover we are saving the time and resources spent in travelling from one court to the other. The traditional way of court proceedings are seeing a new modern turn with technology which is not just an easy medium to hold the proceedings but might just be a solution to a lot of problems faced by the Indian Judicial System due to lack of space and time.