Two days after the registrar general of the Bombay High Court issued a standard operating procedure (SOP) for the resumption of physical hearings at the principal seat of the court from December 1, the Bombay Bar Association and senior lawyers on Sunday wrote two separate letters to Chief Justice (CJ) Dipankar Datta requesting him “to defer the holding of physical courts for the time being, and at the very least allow lawyers the option of appearing virtually should they feel at risk”.
The court, which has been hearing cases virtually since March, had announced on Friday the commencement of physical hearings from December 1 to January 10, 2021 on an experimental basis.
In an order issued on November 27, the HC administration had notified lawyers and litigants appearing in person in the court that the Chief Justice had nominated 10 division benches and 12 single judges to hear the matters physically from December 1.
The SOP issued by the registrar general stated, “The courts taking up matters through physical mode will not entertain any matter through virtual mode. Request for virtual hearing of any matter may therefore not be made.”
It added that the daily cause list (the cases to be taken up) of the courts holding physical hearings should not have more than 50 cases. Only lawyers whose cases are being heard or will be heard immediately after an ongoing hearing, will be allowed inside courtrooms. The rest will be asked to wait outside or in the bar room, in adherence of social distancing norms.
Bombay Bar Association honorary secretary Birendra Saraf said in his letter that a standing committee meeting of the body was held on Sunday and the letter was written to the CJ after a resolution was passed. The letter requested that physical courts may be reopened in phases, initially allowing only three courts to take up cases like final hearings that do not require too many lawyers in the court. “However, if more physical courts are to be added, a hybrid system of physical and virtual courts, as was being operated in the court of the Hon’ble Chief Justice, should be considered,” Saraf wrote.
Senior lawyers, in another letter to the CJ, said: “In the past seven days, Mumbai alone has seen a 24 per cent rise in the active number of Covid-19 cases.”
“In the face of this growth in the number of cases, the risk of transmission of the virus in courts to judges, lawyers, court staff, members of the Registry, clerks, etc. is a real threat. Most judges and senior lawyers who practise in this court are above the age of 50 with varying comorbidities and fall in the category of vulnerable patients at fatal risk should they contract Covid-19,” the letter added.
The signatories of the letter included former additional solicitor generals Shirish Gupte and Rajendra Raghuvanshi, former advocate general Vijay Thorat, senior advocates Amit Desai, Ashok Mundargi and Beni Chatterjee as well as lawyer Yug Chaudhry.
“Since the facility for video conferencing already exists and has been in use for many months, its continuation will cause no hardship or prejudice to anybody, but its suspension will force lawyers either to give up their practise or risk coming to court against their will,” the letter said.
Saraf’s letter also stated that with reopening of courts, there could be crowding at the gates due to mandatory temperature checks, and toilet facilities could act as “super-spreaders of the virus”.
The lawyers clarified that they were not against the resumption of physical hearings but urged the court not to discontinue the video conferencing option.
Both letters stated that high courts of Delhi, Karnataka, Madras, Patna, Allahabad, Jharkhand and Meghalaya had tested the waters with experimental reopening of courts but only to shut down again.
“Physical hearings were suspended in the last week of March when the numbers of Covid-19 cases in Maharashtra were less than 50. Physical hearings were not resumed in October when the average total numbers were 60,000. However, physical hearings are sought to be resumed (albeit partially) now when the total numbers are 85,963,” the lawyers wrote.
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