For the last one week, most of the courts in the country, including the SupremeCourt, are considering only urgent matters in the wake of rapidly spreading COVID – 19 disease. No pending matters are being taken up except an urgency is shown before the Court. But the question really is – are the restrictions really working on the ground?
I happened to visit the Delhi High Court for listing a perceivably urgent matter. Mentionings for urgent listing go before the Joint Registrars and therefore there was a good crowd of lawyers in the court room designated for the Joint Registrar. No personal hearing was arranged and all the lawyers, approximately 25 of them, were inside a tiny room seeking their turn for mentioning. Very clearly, there is no practice of social distancing even as the COVID-19 related restrictions were put in force by the court itself. Even though most of the court rooms remained closed, there were still good number of lawyers in the court premises. Many lawyers had come just for mentioning their urgency or for the matters listed before the Court on account of their urgency.
In the Supreme Court, things were no different. There was considerable crowding of lawyers in the corridors. The registry was working in full capacity albeit with most of the court staff sporting masks. A desk put up outside court rooms provided hand sanitizers for the lawyers and clerks. But the security staff was seen being tutored by some lawyers on Supreme Court Rules when they restricted entry to the court hall.
What is disappointing is that this system of listing urgent matters will serve no purpose in fighting the spread of COVID- 19. Lawyers, clerks and litigants are still coming to court; just that they are now in reduced number.
Many so-called urgent matters are being rejected by the Registrars saying they are not urgent. They may be right, they may be wrong. But nevertheless, they are urgent for the litigants and therefore for the lawyers, because the litigants actually perceive a threat or coercive action in one way or the other. The lawyers, their clerks and the litigants will continue to throng the court, thereby flouting the Corona-related restrictions. The whole exercise of putting in place restrictions thus becomes futile and the limited functioning of the courts will not serve any purpose especially when we are looking at Stage III of the virus-spread.
An order by the Supreme Court invoking Article 142 of the Constitution directing that no coercive steps will be taken by the authorities will allay the fears of most of the litigants. The High Court of Allahabad led the way by issuing directions to the State Government to issue necessary circulars/directives to the various authorities not to take coercive measures or any exercise against any individual or body of individuals which may force them to approach the Courts for legal remedies and also to avoid any public gathering pursuant to any such proceedings like auction etc . The Kerala High Court has also passed a general order staying all coercive steps for recovery of Income Tax, VAT/GST, building tax, motor vehicle tax, land revenue, SARFAESI etc till April 6. Such an order, if it comes from the Supreme Court, will be reassuring for the litigants who can then avoid approaching courts of law.
There is no stipulation as to what matters are urgent and what are not, which has now resulted in the present state of affairs in the court. Therefore, a list of categories of cases may be formulated specially for hearings before courts, if the same is deemed necessary. If such limited cases can be heard by the court, by restricting such cases to one or two, with limited entry for just the lawyers, the issue of overcrowding can be controlled.
One reason why registries are kept busy is on account of filings. Lawyers are filing cases to avoid limitation. Another direction to the effect that the period during which the restrictions will be operative will not be counted for calculating limitation will further take care of the concerns of lawyers too.
It is during times like these that Supreme Court can effectively put into use the purport of Article 142 so that complete justice can be done, not just for the litigants, but for the public as a whole.
(The author is a Delhi-based lawyer. Views are personal)