Want to 'get back to action' but will go by medical advice, says SC on physical hearing

By PTI
NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court, which has been conducting a hearing through video-conferencing since March last year amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Wednesday said it wants to “get back to the action” like earlier but it will go by the opinion of health authorities on the issue.

The apex court made the observation while hearing pleas against a recent circular issued by the Delhi High Court allowing physical hearing in some of its courts and on alternate days of the week in trial courts here “in view of the decline in the intensity of spread of COVID-19 pandemic in the national capital”.

While asking the petitioners to approach the high court on the issue, a bench headed by Chief Justice S A Bobde said, “We trust that the Chief Justice of Delhi High Court will do the needful.”

When senior advocate Vikas Singh, who was representing some of the petitioners, raised the issue of resumption of physical hearing in the apex court, the bench said, “We also want to get back to the action we used to. But we want to consult the health authorities before that. We are not going to take the opinion of advocates on a health issue”.

“We have asked for a medical opinion. We will take the decision after that. We know the opinion of Bar. We have been hearing them for the past nine months. Everyday, we hear members of the Bar,” the bench observed.

Singh told the bench, also comprising Justices A S Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, that the common man is not getting justice in the virtual hearing.

To this, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said, “That is not true. Our courts have not denied access to a single citizen.”

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing for some of the petitioners, sought an adjournment in the matter saying that the Registrar General of the high court has called lawyers for a discussion on the issue today evening.

“You withdraw the petition,” the bench said.

When Sibal requested that the matter be kept pending in the apex court, the bench said, “No no. You approach the high court.”

One of the pleas was filed by Kartik Nayar, Nancy Roy, Sachit Jolly and Amit Bhagat, who all are practicing lawyers in Delhi.

On January 14, the Delhi High Court had said it has decided to increase the number of judges who would be hearing cases physically from January 18 onwards “in view of the decline in the intensity of spread of COVID-19 pandemic in the national capital”.

The high court has also issued directions to the district courts in Delhi to hold physical courts on alternate days of the week from Monday.

An office order issued by Registrar General Manoj Jain had said that the Full Court of the high court has decided that 11 benches — two division benches of two judges each and nine single-judge benches — shall conduct physical proceedings from January 18 and the rest would hear matters via video conferencing.

One of the pleas filed in the apex court had said that since November last year, it was submitted by various advocates that sole reliance on the virtual hearing system was causing hardships and several lawyers were not able to access proper internet connectivity and therefore were lacking efficient means to appear virtually before the various judicial forums including the high court and district courts.

“The High Court of Delhi took the same into consideration, however keeping in mind the unstable situation due to the ongoing pandemic, and the representations made by several members of the esteemed bar, continued to follow the hybrid system of hearings on a rotational basis, and allowing physical hearing only in 1/4 th capacity, in a phased manner,” it had said.

It had said that hybrid system of the optional virtual and physical hearing was accommodating as it catered to the needs of the advocates who preferred to appear in person for their respective matters due to not being able to access proper internet connectivity and at the same time allowed the advocates, suffering from comorbidities or having someone in their family having major health concerns, appear virtually.

“However, to much shock and dismay of the advocates and the legal fraternity, the impugned notification along with the latest roster of physical sitting of courts was released on January 14-15, which mandates that a total of 11 benches, inclusive of two-division benches, three single benches (Civil), three Single/benches (Criminal) and three original benches (Civil), to sit daily and take up matters physically,” it had said.

The high court had, on March 25, 2020, restricted its functioning as well as that of the district courts till April 14, 2020, and it was subsequently extended from time to time till January 16, 2021.