A total of 116 benches of the Supreme Court heard matters during 22 days of hearings between March 23 – once lockdown rules entailing court hearings via video-conferencing were put in practice by the apex court – and May 1.
The court resorted to limited hearings via video-conferencing during this time.
Figures accessed by The Indian Express confirm that 43 benches were designated for main matters and 73 benches for review petitions. The number of matters heard was 538, apart from 297 connected matters, sources said. Judgments were delivered in 57 matters that had been reserved or were Curia advisari vult and another 268 connected matters “comprising all categories of matters”. In addition, 58 prayers for interim relief and mentioning were heard. A total of 49 special leave petitions, 92 writ petitions and 138 review petitions were disposed of.
In comparison, the Delhi High Court took up 623 cases during this period via video-conferencing. A total of 120 matters were reported on board until April 16. The maximum number of matters heard on a single day was on April 27, when two division benches heard 13 cases and seven single-judge benches heard 92 cases, adding up to 105 cases that day.
Chief Justice of India S A Bobde told The Indian Express last week about a slump in court activity, with filings having dropped steeply. “In January this year, there were up to 205 filings per day and a total of 4,108 for the month. In April so far (until April 26), the total number of e-filings was 305,” he said.
The apex court under CJI Bobde has been keen to be seen as a court that wishes to adopt modern methods made possible by electronic communication. The Supreme Court was set to launch the use of artificial intelligence in March, but the plans were delayed due to COVID-19.
Even before the lockdown was declared nationally, it was by an order on March 6 that the Supreme Court instituted a new practice to observe physical distancing but continue to hear matters that come up.
Concerns have been raised in some quarters that video-conferencing leads to more opacity and not openness, but sources said the “practice is not new”. In 2003, the Supreme Court in its judgment passed in State of Maharashtra v. Prafulla Desai in 2003 held that recording of evidence by a court through video-conferencing mode shall be considered to be “as per procedure established by law”.
The Constitution uses the term “Open Court” once, in reference to functionality of the courts. Article 145(4) stipulates: “No judgment shall be delivered by the Supreme Court save in open Court, and no report shall be made under Article 143 save in accordance with an opinion also delivered in open Court.”
Sources said, “It needs to be understood that, as a concept, open court mandates the following: access of all parties to the hearings, right to participate in hearings, to the parties or their legal representatives, and access to court hearings and their outcome to the public and media. What needs to be underlined is that the traditional open court system, in its physical manifestation, and new-age virtual court system are not antithetical to each other. On the contrary, both systems could definitely coexist, delivering deliver qualitative justice, wherever deployed in light of extant circumstances.”
The Supreme Court also has come under criticism from some quarters for not hearing urgent Constitutional matters, but sources said all matters would be heard in due course.
The court has been hearing many matters relating to the pandemic and issues emanating from the government’s handling of the lockdown. On the other hand, some crucial matters on the validity of laws are yet to be heard, such as the validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act, reading down of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, and matters of habeas corpus for leaders in J&K under detention. The matter of restoration of 4G internet in J&K was adjourned by a video-conference bench last week.
Criticism of the Supreme Court’s role during COVID was witnessed during a video-conference hearing on April 27, when the three-judge bench of Justice N V Ramana, Justice Sanjay K Kaul and Justice B R Gavai was told by senior advocate Prashant Bhushan that the court was blindly accepting the government view without verifying it while fundamental rights of migrants were not being enforced. The bench told Bhushan, “This institution is not hostage of government.”
There has been criticism from some senior advocates about the “Supreme Court being in lockdown and in Emergency care”, citing that work is down from the “800+ cases” per day listed to far fewer cases. There have also been complaints about technical glitches.
Sources in the Supreme Court said they have “ensured data connection of uninterrupted bandwidth of 100 Mbps at their end to ensure that there are no technical glitches. Likewise, it is the responsibility of the parties and the Counsel to ensure they have appropriate bandwidth (ideally 2 Mbps and above) installed and available on a dedicated device at their end to ensure that seamless connectivity is ensured and the Virtual Court experience is an uninterrupted one.”
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