Courts and COVID-19- Are We Prepared Enough?

Advocate Padma Priya
13 March 2020 4:48 AM GMT
Courts and COVID-19- Are We Prepared Enough?
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Corona is matching "my lord", in terms of the frequency with which it is uttered these days in the Court premises.

The World Health Organization has now declared Covid-19 as a "global pandemic".

Going by the advisories issued by the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health, Government of India, it seems that courts are quite susceptible to becoming the medium of spreading the infection. The recent episode of spread of swine flu in the Supreme Court holds testimony to this fact. It has been reported that several judges of the Supreme Court got the infection, and it is left to guess work if there was a common source of infection or it got spread from one to other. But what is certain is that the Courts are ill equipped for now, to handle any such pandemic.

All the advisories regarding Covid-19 are against venturing into crowded area, restricting travel, maintaining a distance of at least one meter with anyone who shows any signs of infection, and to frequently wash/sanitize ones hands. For anyone who frequently visits Courts, this seems far from possible in normal circumstances.

We as lawyers, come in contact and interact with scores of fellow lawyers, clients and court staff as a part of our routine day in court. Most court premises are full of glass, paper, metal and plastic all around, surfaces which require deep-cleaning/disinfection on a regular basis but that is not possible during a work day. Most of the constitutional courts are air-conditioned, and so is the case with several Tribunals and Trial Courts.Then there are lifts, seat-stands, and escalators and railings which are accessed by one and all. It is not possible to maintain a healthy distance with people around, for most courts end up being crowded on any given day.

Lawyers have the need and propensity to travel for work and to interact with a variety of clients, including those who would have travelled for attending matters. This greatly increases the chances of infection, and if one is infected then the chances of passing on the infection is equally higher.

Lawyers also frequently exchange documents which pass through several hands before reaching the desired recipient. For example, in the course of arguments, if one is to rely on a case law, the briefing counsel would pass a copy of the judgment to the arguing counsel, to the opposite counsel, and through the court staff, to the bench. The number of persons who are susceptible to be infected and the chain that it could trigger is unimaginable and definitely very difficult to check and control. Likewise is the case of pleadings/documents being filed, from the Printer/Photocopier to the court-clerks to court staff and onwards to the bench. What is most important to note is that there is no scope of disinfecting any document or file at any of these stages.

And whatever we are told to scare or assuage, by family or friends or by the University of Whatsapp- the scare is real, the threat is looming large.

The Delhi High Court recently issued a notice requesting the Advocates, general public and litigants to adhere to the guidelines/advisory issued by the Govt. of NCT of Delhi and avoid unnecessary overcrowding in the court premises. The Delhi High Court Bar Association has followed suit and issued an advisory to not issue visitors passes unless parties are required to be personally present in court.

The Bombay Bar Association has guided its members with protocols in place including thermal scanning, and requesting members not to visit the Bar Association or hold meetings there. There are similar measures in place at other High Courts.

However, considering the alarming rate at which the virus is spreading and its severity, it is time to call for more stringent measures. As long as matters are listed, lawyers are duty bound to attend them, and it is also not easy sometimes to discourage clients from coming, particularly in courts and forums where there is no access control systems in place.

It is therefore necessary to think of more solutions. The following are some measures suggested to this end:

  1. For the next few days, the listing may be restricted to only "urgent" matters, with similar standards of screening as for listing before vacation benches or some other criteria evolved by the respective Bar association.

  1. In the least, wherever joint requests are received in advance from parties, matters could be adjourned /deleted and dates notified on the website.
  2. Visit to Court premises must be restricted and parties may be advised not to attend court proceedings, unless their personal presence is required by the Court.
  3. Thermal scanning must be made mandatory for anyone entering court premises.
  4. Anyone found running high temperature must be isolated and duly investigated.
  5. Emergency protocols to be applied in case an infection is found, must be pre-published and notified to one and all.
  6. A helpline number must be published for each court premises, so that a single window reporting/information dissemination system is in place.
  7. Broadcast of court proceedings may be done, to avoid unnecessary crowding of courts.
  8. Disinfection may be mandated for court premises on a regular basis, especially of the door-handles, railings and other such susceptible points of infection exchange.

It is important that the Bar associations/Bar Councils take immediate steps in consultation with respective courts to this end.Guidelines evolved after due consultation, may be published for all Courts /tribunals to follow.Looking at the enormity of the situation, it is essential that timely measures are taken at every level to contain the spread of the virus, and it is for us to ensure that our workplace does not become a potential threat of contracting/ spreading the Covid-19 infection.

After all, no one should approach the courts with unclean hands!

Author is a Delhi Based Lawyer

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