LiveLaw has taken an initiative to analyse the functioning of High Courts across the country during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have taken various parameters such as the volume of cases filed, the number of cases disposed, the proactive steps taken by the High Courts, guidance to the subordinate judiciary etc. This data compilation will be an ongoing work and periodically revised with the inputs. In view of Covid-19, there are certain limitations in data mining, and we seek our readers support to get more information into the functioning of various High Courts. We would like approach the issues positively and support the justice delivery system with creative suggestions and analysis of data.
We have carried a similar review in the case of Allahabad High Court, Sikkim High Court and Telangana High Court, and will continue with the effort to cover all High Courts in India.
Covid Situation in Kerala
The first confirmed case of the coronavirus infection in India was reported from the state of Kerala on 30 January, 2020. As of date, it has 6195 confirmed cases, 3559 cured and 27 patients are reported dead (Source: mygov.in). While the Central Government has eased restrictions to a large extent, the Kerala Government recently issued a notification extending the enforcement of state's COVID-19 regulations till July 2021.
The Kerala High Court has also been prompt in taking concrete measures to tackle the situation, and the chart below traces the approach adopted by the high court in a chronological order:
March 11, 2020
An Office Memorandum was issued by the High Court Registrar instructing all the Principal District and Sessions Judges to not insist on personal appearance of parties unless indispensable.
It also relaxed regular court procedure and directed subordinate courts to adjourn such cases by notification that are not to be taken up for trial.
March 16, 2020
Keeping in view the rise in Covid cases, the High Court put an absolute restriction on the entry of public/ litigants in the High Court complex. It was clarified that only those individuals who are summoned by the Court will be permitted to enter.
The High Court also thereby mandated:
March 18, 2020
The Kerala High Court was among the first judicial forums to take note of the rising prices of essential commodities, viz., face masks and hand sanitizers during hearing of a PIL and it ordered the Government to promptly put a cap on the same.
March 20, 2020
Keeping in view the advisory against mass gatherings, the High Court restricted its functioning to hear only urgent matters until after the Summer-vacation.
It also automatically extended all Stay/interim order, that were expiring before May 18, 2020, to avoid physical appearance of parties.
Furthermore, the High Court took the following steps to avoid the crowding:
· Shifted half the number of Filing Scrutiny Officers to a new location near to the Filing Section;
· Provided Help Desks in the entrance of the Copying Section, Court Officers' Section & Data Entry Section
· Permitted Court staff to attend office on rotation basis;
March 23, 2020
The High Court became the first court in the country to hold hearings via video conferencing, amid the pandemic threat, and heard eight bail applications through the same.
Given the rising threat of the infection. The high court was declared shut from March 24 till April 8.
It was notified that Court will observe limited functioning on Tuesdays and Fridays for urgent matters.
March 24, 2020
In view of announcement of nation-wide lockdown, the HC instructed all the Judicial Officers of its subordinate courts to hear urgent matters from their respective residences.
March 25, 2020
In view of announcement of nation-wide lockdown, the Full Bench of the High Court registered a suo moto and extended the closure period of the HC till April 14.
The Court also extended the subsistence of all the interim orders passed by it and the courts subordinate to it till April 14.
Taking note of the impact of national lockdown on the workings of the offices of advocates and government law officers and their support staff, the High Court of Kerala directed that the police should not make arrests, except where it is inevitable.
March 28, 2020
Since the courts were practically shut due to the nationwide lockdown, the HC constituted a division bench that would take up extremely urgent matters via video conferencing.
March 30, 2020
On this day, the Kerala High Court became the first court in the country to live stream the proceedings held via video conferencing.
Through this move, the high court gave a new dimension to "open" court hearings.
Given the announcement of the lockdown, the High Court extended the subsistence of all the interim orders passed by it and the courts subordinate to it till May 18.
The High Court had also, to avoid any further delay while waiting for the High Powered Committee to take a decision thereon, directed the release of prisoners convicted of or charged with offences having jail term of up to seven years on interim bail, as a measure to decongest prisons.
April 6, 2020
Recognizing the right to liberty of prisoners, that was severely affected due to the lockdown, the HC constituted a Special Bench to hear Bail Applications via video conferencing.
April 13, 2020
To make up for the loss of court work during the continuing lockdown situation, the High Court announced that it will sit through the midsummer vacation, 2020 and will hear urgent cases via Video Conferencing.
The High Court has also issued detailed guidelines to be followed during e-filing.
April 21, 2020
To ensure the fundamental right to "access to justice" the HC enquired from the Central Government if it was possible to grant relaxations for advocates from the lockdown.
May 5, 2020
The HC decided to take up all pending cases "ripe for hearing", during the vacation period. However, cases involving private parties were be taken up only with the consent of all such parties.
May 15, 2020
With the easing of lockdown restrictions, the HC announced that it will reopen its premises, with full strength, from May 18, 2020.
May 16, 2020
The HC issued an advisory, laying down the protocol for functioning of Subordinate Courts in the state.
· maximum of 10 persons, including the Presiding Officer will be present in a Court hall; Advocates, parties and witnesses concerning the case shall alone be permitted to be present inside the Court hall;
· No coercive steps shall be taken/ exparte orders passed against any party or witness if the court is convinced that person or his/her counsel was unable to attend the Court due to travel restrictions imposed for containment of COVID-19;
· Wherever possible, especially for bail applications, proceedings shall be resorted to through video-conferencing.
May 18, 2020
Due to limited functioning and non-availability of access to courts, the HC extended the subsistence of all the interim orders passed by it and the courts subordinate to it till June 30, 2020.
May 26, 2020
HC instructed that production of an accused before the Magistrates and Special Judges in the state will be done via electronic means only, to prevent the spread of Covid infection in the court premises.
June 5, 2020
2 months after restricting entry to HC premises and holding virtual hearings, it partially relaxed those restrictions and permitted entry Advocates Association Hall, Advocate Clerks' rooms, etc. with social distancing protocol.
June 15, 2020
The High Court launched its "e-Module" which encompasses e-projects for:
· Bail Application e-filings
· Motor Accident Claim Appeals (MACA)
· Land Acquisition Appeals (LAA)
· Obtaining Certified Copies of Orders and other court documents electronically.
June 30, 2020
Observing that Covid cases are increasing, the HC extended all interim orders till 3rd August 2020.
The High Court has been cautious in allowing physical presence of litigants, Advocates or court staff amid the pandemic and has taken massive measures to curb travel, by holding as far as practicable, virtual hearings.
In A First, Kerala HC Live Streams Court Proceedings Held Via Video Conferencing
It became the first court in the country to conduct hearings via video conferencing and live-streamed the proceedings, amid the threat of Covid-19 infection. The hearing was held by a single bench from his chamber in eight bail matters, and the VC facility was used to connect to the lawyers sitting in the court halls.
Starting from March 24, 2020, until yesterday, i.e. July 9, 2020, a total of 21 benches composed by the High Court have disposed of 7521 cases.
Apart from this the High Court has also disposed many cases through physical hearing.
Since the High Court encouraged hearing of cases via VC even at local courts and was prompt in issuing e-filing and video conferencing guidelines, a total of 3,398 cases were disposed of by the subordinate courts in Kerala until May 29, 2020.
The most laudable aspect of the entire set up is that courts in all 14 Districts of the state were privy to VC hearings, indicating that people residing in remote areas were also given access to courts, if required.
The High Court has also achieved a milestone by live streaming court proceedings. This facility, throughout the lockdown period, ensured that justice delivery is not restricted to the homes of litigants involved, but is open to be witnessed by the entire country through virtual windows.
Apart from being proactive on the administrative side, the Kerala High Court also kept abreast with the difficulties being faced by the citizens due to the unprecedented crisis and it played a crucial role in securing the Fundamental Rights of citizens.
As early as on March 25, when the country had just entered the unprecedented nationwide lockdown, the High Court directed the Police to not make arrests, except where it is inevitable. The decision was taken keeping in mind various factors, including lack of access to courts, overcrowding in prisons, novelty of the situation, etc. Subsequently, the High Court took cognizance of police excess and directed the Director General of Police to direct the officers not to use force against the violators of lockdown unless it is absolutely essential.
The High Court also closely monitored the plight of Migrants in the state and conditions of children lodged in Child Care Institutions. It passed relevant orders from time to time to ameliorate their conditions, by making available to them the basic commodities in life.
Apart from citizens, the high court was also conscious of animal rights. It passed orders, permitting pet owners to travel even during the lockdown, so as to secure food for their pets. The High Court also observed,
"Over and above the right to life conferred on the animals by the Apex Court in the judgment in Animal Welfare Board , every citizen has a right to enjoy his life and liberty conferred under Article 21 of the Constitution of India by having a choice of rearing pets. So much so, a citizen's choice to rear pets is traceable to his fundamental right to privacy as recognised by the Apex Court in Puttaswamy's case, which in turn is a facet of his right under Article 21"."
Technological upgardation has become a cardinal factor in ensuring access to courts and we hope that other courts in the country will also follow the lead set by the Kerala HC.