Updated: March 28, 2021 5:21:45 pm
As Covid-19 cases surge in Mumbai and Maharashtra, the Bombay Bar Association (BBA) has written to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, Dipankar Datta, to allow court proceedings before the principal seat in Mumbai to go virtual, or at least become a hybrid of physical and virtual.
After lockdown restrictions were eased, the High Court had resumed physical hearing of almost all cases from the first week of December 2020. Until then, virtual hearings were conducted from the beginning of lockdown in March 2020.
A representation, made through the Association’s president Nitin Thakker on Saturday, referred to the night curfew beginning from March 28 ordered by the state government in view of the “seriousness of the pandemic”.
Sources said that in a meeting on March 19, the administrative judges of the High Court, along with the representatives of the state and central governments as well as various bar associations, decided to avoid overcrowding in court premises by restricting entry of litigants, unless specifically called for by the court, for at least two weeks.
It was also decided to allow individual judges at the principal seat in Mumbai to decide on whether they want to conduct hearings in the video conference mode instead of physical hearings. The Committee had decided to monitor the situation for two weeks to decide on a request for virtual or hybrid hearings.
Raising concerns over the surge in Covid-19 cases in Mumbai and within the legal fraternity, the Association said, “A large number of advocates have tested positive for Covid-19. We have been given to understand that a number of Court staff and some of the judges have also been infected. Despite this, the crowd in the courtroom and the high density of people attending the court continues. In some of the Courts, due to very heavy assignment and small court rooms, lawyers virtually stand shoulder to shoulder.”
The Association, on March 17, had closed its premises in the High Court for sanitization purposes as one of the canteen staff had tested positive for Covid-19.
“Numerous law firms have informed that their juniors, staff and office personnel have tested positive in significant numbers. Some of the firms have closed their offices. The members of the Bar have requested that at least a hybrid format should be provided where lawyers have an option to attend virtually. This hybrid format has been operating extremely smoothly in some of the courtrooms where the judge has made this facility available,” the letter added.
Video conference hearings for urgent matters resumed at Aurangabad bench of the High Court from Monday, March 22, as a temporary arrangement and the Nagpur bench of the High Court is continuing virtual hearings till further notice.
In light of the “changed circumstances”, the Association said, “From a public health point of view, the congregation of such a large number of people within court premises will inevitably lead to a spread of coronavirus amongst innumerable people across the city.”
In view of “safeguarding and protecting” its members and public at large, it requested the Chief Justice to consider virtual or hybrid hearings. “The lawyers should at least be given the option to appear virtually. This will reduce the footfall in the Court premises and curb the possible spread of the virus infection.”
The Chief Justice and administrative committee of the High Court are likely to take a decision this week.
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