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[Covid and Courts] Telangana High Court

Nausheen Khan
6 July 2020 7:29 AM GMT
[Covid and Courts] Telangana High Court
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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 and Sikkim High Court, and will continue with the effort to cover all High Courts in India.

Telangana is the youngest state in India, created on 2nd June, 2014 after it was separated from the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh. It is one of the five southern states in India. The Telangana High Court was established in 2019 after the bifurcation of the High Court of Judicature at Hyderabad which was previously functioning as the common High Court for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. It has a sanctioned judge-strength of 24 judges.

Covid Situation in Telangana

Telangana had a total of 20,462 cases of covid positive persons as on 4th July, 2020, with 10,195 persons recovered and 283 patients dead. While the Central Government has eased restrictions to a large extent, the Telangana Government has announced extension of the existing restrictions, with minor relaxations, till 31st July, 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, the High Court at Hyderabad has remained on its feet. While being mindful of the steps taken by the state government, it has also worked to ensure that maximum precautions are taken in the working of the state judiciary. A chronological series of events stating the measures undertaken by the high court, highlighting its approach, is listed in the chart below;

Date

Particulars

4th March, 2020

An advisory was issued by High Court in view of Covid 19 to ensure safety measures such as use of sanitizers and maintaining social distance in court premises.

16th March, 2020

A notification was releaded by the high court which ordered suspension of regular functioning in all courts in Telangana. The notification included directions given by the high court to all subordinate courts in Telangana to entertain only urgent matters including bail applications, temporary injunction applications, remand matters, etc. All other matters listed for hearing were adjourned for three weeks. Further, instructions for restricted functioning were issued, including:

  • The presence of parties was not to be insisted upon unless extremely necessary and remand of prisoners was allowed to be done only through video conferencing
  • Crowding in the prisons was to be avoided.
  • Additionally, temporary medical dispensaries were established in the court complexes for employees and judicial officers and para medical personnel were deployed in all the court complexes for primary medical check-up of the entrants of court premises. Other directions for social distancing and hygiene were also issued.
  • A dedicated team comprising of Senior Judicial Officers and Senior Ministerial Staff was constituted in each District Court complex to monitor the situation.

In a separate notification, further information was released specifically regarding the High Court, including the following:

  • The High Court would remain functional with 1 division bench and 4 single benches, which would hear cases on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week.
  • Only urgent matters would be taken up, such as bail applications, stay applications, extension of stay. Fresh cases would be taken up only if extremely urgent.
  • Filing of the cases was allowed at the high court. However, advocates were requested to describe the nature of urgency to qualify for hearing on an urgent basis.
  • At a time, only Advocates for 5 cases were permitted to enter the Courtroom.
  • The high court would not pass adverse orders penalising absence of parties or advocates in cases listed for hearing.

18th March, 2020

A notice was posted on the website of the high court requesting all the entrants, including advocates, staff members and litigants, to cooperate during thermal screening at the entry points of the high court campus.

23rd March, 2020

The High Court began hearing cases through Video Conferencing (VC).

27th March, 2020

The High Court took up Suo Motu Writ Petition No: Urgent 1/2020 (In Re: Extension of Interim Orders and Abeyance of Execution Orders), under which all interim orders were extended in validity till 7th April, 2020 and all execution orders were stayed until further notice. This extension was applicable to those orders which expired on or after 20th March.

Further, under Notification- ROC No. 394/SO/2020, the High Court notified that due to announcement of lockdown for 3 weeks from 24th march by the Central Government, all subordinate courts, tribunals and judicial services would be closed till 14th April and cases listed would be automatically adjourned. The courts were allowed to take up extremely urgent cases through VC for hearing on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week. Office work would be done remotely and filing of urgent matters would be done by email. The notification explained the process from filing to hearing and disposal.

In a separate circular, detailed guidelines were issued for online filing and Video Conferencing. Some notable ones are:

  • Hard copies of all documents for cases filed online would have to be submitted once the normal functioning of the court resumes.
  • Advocates would be communicated information about listing of their cases through email and sms.
  • VC facility was made accessible in a control room at the High Court for those advocates/litigants who could not access it remotely.
  • Zoom app was prescribed for VC hearings.

13th April, 2020

In view of the complete lockdown declared by state government, from 14th April midnight for 16 days, the High Court notified the extension of suspension of work in the High Court and the subordinate courts. However, the courts were allowed to continue to take up urgent cases, and all instructions issued on 27th March were extended till 30th April, 2020.

17th April, 2020

The High Court issued a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) which summarised all the previous instructions an gave a detailed step-by-step guide to online filing and hearing.

A separate notification stated that for security reasons, the High Court decided to use "Cisco Webex Meetings" software instead of Zoom Cloud meetings app.

19th April, 2020

The High Court stopped the VC facility at Telangana State Judicial Academy, Secunderabad, which was available to those who could not avail it remotely. This was done due to the increasing risk of contagion, as noted in the notice released on the High Court's website.

25th April, 2020

In view of the extension of the lockdown by the state government till 7th May, the previous circulars notifying restricted functioning of the state's Judiciary were ordered by the High Court to remain operational until 7th May, 2020.

29th April, 2020

The High Court announced cancellation of the summer vacation 2020 in all courts in the state to make up for time lost during the pandemic.

4th May, 2020

In view of the cancellation of the summer vacation this year, all the judicial officers in the state were permitted a one-week break on the condition that there would be no dislocation of work. An application would have to be submitted to the registry, which would grant leave as per the roster arrangement while ensuring minimum disruption.

6th May, 2020

4 VC Rooms were opened at the Telangana State Judicial Academy in Secunderabad for participating in the Virtual Courts through VC for advocates who could not access it remotely. These "Kiosks" were made functional from 7th May, 2020.

7th May, 2020

The state government further extended the lockdown till 29th May, 2020. Accordingly, the High Court notified that all previous directions for restricted functioning would continue till 29th May. Non-urgent matters were adjourned and cases "ripen for disposal" (ready for final disposal) were allowed to be taken up through VC.

The High Court clarified that it would continue to take up cases for final hearing and other matters decided by the judges as per the roster, in addition to extremely urgent matters.

9th May, 2020

Modified guidelines were issued by the High Court for online filing and hearing of matters through VC. In addition to filing all types of cases through email, it was notified that all cases (even non-urgent cases) may be taken up after roster arrangement.

(However, it later notified on 11th May that only extremely urgent matters will be taken up for hearing and not all cases.)

11th May, 2020

Due to representations and requests from Bar, the High Court decided to extend the benefit of financial assistance to the Advocates "who are having standing at the Bar up to 10 years as on the date of application." (this eligibility criterion was later removed). Other criteria for qualifying for the benefit included non-receipt of regular salary, and that the spouse of the applicant should not be a government employee.

14th May, 2020

The High Court cancelled its previous notification dated 11th May, 2020 which allowed hearing of only extremely urgent matters and the notification dated 9th May, 2020 was restored. This meant that parties were now allowed to file all cases and all cases would be taken up as per roster, irrespective of urgency.

20th May, 2020

The High Court released a notice dispensing with the requirement of wearing black robes while addressing the court as a precautionary measure to contain the spread of Covid-19.

29th May, 2020

The suspension of work in High Court and subordinate courts extended till 6th June, 2020. Major changes in the functioning of courts were introduced. All the courts were now allowed to take up the hearing of the cases ready for final disposal, in addition to urgent civil and criminal matters through VC. Also, virtual hearing was allowed to be done from the court campus. Further, physical filing of cases was allowed in all courts except those in Hyderabad and Rangareddy Districts, while ensuring social distancing norms and online filing wherever possible. The Unit heads were directed to ensure disinfection, fogging, sanitization of the courts. Measures for maintaining physical distance, use of masks, sanitizers, etc were also issued.

5th June, 2020

The High Court directed all the Judicial Officers in Telangana to install GIMS (Government Instant Messaging System) and to operate their official NIC e-mails, so as to ease communication for official purposes.

6th June, 2020

The High Court announced that suspension of normal working in the subordinate courts would continue till 14th June, 2020 and in the High Court till 28th June, 2020.

Additionally, physical hearing of certain urgent matters was allowed from the Judicial Academy at Secunderabad. However, these were only cases where the presence of the accused was absolutely necessary.

8th June, 2020

A new SOP for the subordinate courts was issued which gave instructions for functioning from 15th June. The SOP would apply to all courts except those in Hyderabad and Rangareddy districts wherein the lockdown was extended till 28th June, 2020. The instructions included:

  • A phase-wise reopening of Subordinate Courts would be carried out. The reopening strategy was planned in 4 phases:
    • Phase I: 15th June, 2020 to 30th June, 2020
    • Phase II: 1st July, 2020 to 15th July, 2020
    • Phase III: 16th July, 2020 to 7th August, 2020
    • Phase IV: 8th August, 2020 onwards

(Detailed plan can be accessed here)

  • In phase I, every day the entire court premises would be disinfected twice daily.
  • It was made mandatory for all entrants into the court premises to:
    • Test with infrared guns.
    • Wear masks.
    • Use sanitizers.
    • Maintain physical distance.
  • There would be a waiting hall for Advocates waiting for their turn to address the Court, nearest the Court Hall, with a facility of display board/monitor showing the status of the cases. Minimum 3 feet distance would have to be maintained between the chairs in the waiting hall and sanitizers be made available.

13th June, 2020

By a circular, the High Court announced the extension of suspension of all courts till 30th June, 2020 because of recent spike in cases in past two weeks. The SOP which was issued on 8th June, 2020 for phased reopening and restricted physical functioning was deferred until further orders. However, cases opened in the meanwhile were ordered to be disposed.

In a separate circular, physical filing of cases at High Court was allowed and parties were left at liberty to file physically or online.

20th June, 2020

The Registrar General of the High Court released a letter instructing unit heads of subordinate courts to comply with a user manual sent by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud of the Supreme Court of India to enable the courts to "proceed in a systematic and planned manner to reduce the risks associated with the pressure of a large number of persons in court premises during COVID-19." The manual contains a detailed list of precautions and innovative measures to avoid the spread of infection.

27th June, 2020

The High Court in its most recent notification has extended the suspension of the state's Judiciary till 20th July, 2020. The courts continue to function virtually.

The Telangana High court has been cautious of the threat of contagion throughout the pandemic. Despite that, it has also ensured that the justice delivery system in the state adapts to changed circumstances. It has worked toward ensuring minimum disruption, for instance, on 2nd May, the swearing in ceremony of Sri. B. Vijaysen Reddy as Judge of the Telangana High Court was webcast live for public viewing online since public entry into the premises of the court was restricted.

It is interesting to note that, as per data communicated by Registrar General, Telangana High Court, in the period between 23rd March and 5th June, 2020 the High Court dealt with 9087 cases and passed a total of 1401 judgements and orders with 12 benches hearing cases, all through video conferencing (VC). During the same period, 1940 fresh cases were instituted at the High Court. It should be kept in mind that only those cases which were considered extremely urgent were instituted. About 190 cases were listed on each working day for hearing, which is a large number. In the initial phases of the lockdown, Zoom app was used for VC hearings. However, with concerns raised about the security issues with Zoom, the High Court informed that hearings would be done on the Cisco Webex Software.

On 7th May, a circular announced that The Telangana State Advocates Welfare Trust, "has resolved to extend financial assistance to all those needy advocates, who are unable to meet their day to day expenses due to the lockdown in the wake of pandemic COVID-19 VIRUS." Certain conditions for eligibility were imposed such as maximum standing of 7-10 years but later these were removed so as to provide aid to all Advocates in need. The efforts of the state Bar Association are appreciable in extending the benefit to maximum number of needy lawyers, as evident in the notice which cancelled the maximum-standing criterion.

However, other criteria such as that the applicant Advocate needs to be independent and not receiving salary from any Advocate office and earning less than Rs.15,000/- per month on the date of application continue to apply, and only those advocates were found eligible whose spouse was not a government employee. A similar scheme was floated for financial assistance to Advocates' clerks.

The VC through control room made available at State Judicial Academy at Secunderabad is definitely a great step. Inclusiveness of those who are not privileged enough to have remote access to VC facility from their homes ensures justice delivery without prejudice. As per court notifications, currently 4 VC facilities are functional at the Academy.

Recently, the High Court has launched 'Mobile Video Conference Facility' To assist VC appearance of lawyers from remote areas,

"In order to facilitate Advocates, who do not have access to the Virtual Courts from their respective home offices the concept of Mobile Video Conference Facility has been introduced by the High Court. The mobile van will go to the remote places of the town so that the advocates residing in that vicinity can make use of mobile video conference facility and address the virtual court," a press note stated.

(read the full report on Mobile VC Facility here)

In fact, the proactive approach of the court in balancing health concerns and concern for justice delivery is evident in its latest notifications dated 27th and 29th June, 2020 designating a particular hospital in Hyderabad as a dedicated treatment centre for employees and judicial officers in the High Court and the subordinate courts who were found corona positive. Contact numbers of officials from the High Court were provided alongside to aid admission and treatment at the hospital.

The Telangana High Court has taken some notable steps to ensure inclusivity in the justice delivery system, and it must be appreciated. In all, its functioning has been satisfactory and going forward should look for greater integration of virtual systems for ease of access.

However, major challenges are yet to be overcome. One of these is the lack of a uniform policy for conducting hearings. The absence of rules guiding online functioning might create procedural lacunae in the future conduct of hearings, leading to a new string of litigation in this area. Another challenge remains in building the physical and technical infrastructure to adequately support the move toward digitisation. There is a need to hire technical experts to upgrade court systems to cater to the need for updated information. Also, monitoring the Judiciary's performance becomes impossible due to lack of accurate, publicly available data. This is another aspect that must be addressed and transparency must be ensured, in the spirit of democracy and to garner public faith in the judicial system.

The approach of the Telangana High Court stands out because of its concern for ensuring access to online facilities to Advocates, especially the recently inaugurated Mobile VC Facility. We hope that with the awakening prompted by the current health emergency, the Judiciary will realise the importance of adaptability and technological upgradation and will emerge well-equipped for all future exigencies.

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