The world has come to a complete halt because of the unprecedented pandemic, which continues to make a mess of human lives. COVID-19 has given rise to some serious challenges to the Justice Delivery System in our country. The Supreme Court of India, High Courts of our country, and Subordinate Courts are putting their best feet forward, in ensuring that access to justice remains ubiquitous, even in times of a pandemic, by bringing into play, virtual courts and hearings. The Supreme Court issued various guidelines for court functioning through video-conferencing during COVID-19 pandemic in Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 5/2020, In Re: Guidelines for Court Functioning Through Video Conferencing During COVID-19 Pandemic, encouraging the use of video-conferencing and reducing the need of the physical presence of all stakeholders within the premises of the Courts, in order to follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) and social distancing norms, issued by the World Health Organization and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, Government of India. All the High Courts and Subordinate Courts have employed video-conferencing facilities robustly so that dispensation of justice remains continual.
The Jammu & Kashmir High Court has taken significant steps to ensure access and delivery of justice remain in place at all times. In the case of Court on Its Own Motion v. Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh through Secretaries, Social Welfare Department, WP(C) PIL No. 1/2020, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir, took suo moto cognizance of the cases related to domestic violence and issued notices to the Secretary, Department of Social Welfare, Government of Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, and Member Secretary, Jammu and Kashmir State Legal Services Authority, to submit a report highlighting the steps taken regarding domestic or any other kind of violence being faced by women on account of the implementation of the COVID-19 lockdown. The Bench also issued a slew of measures for the immediate assistance of the victims which were, creation of dedicated funding to address issues of violence against women and girls as part of the COVID-19 response by the Union Territories of the Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, increased availability of call-in services to facilitate discreet reporting of abuse, increased online legal and counselling service for women and girls, designated informal safe spaces for women, immediate designation of safe spaces as shelters for women who are compelled to leave their domestic situation and these shelters must be treated as accessible shelters.
In Azra Usmail v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir WP(C) PIL No. 4/2020 and Court on its Own Motion v. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, WP(C) PIL No. 5/2020, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir issued directions to the concerned district administration of Reasi to ensure that the 400 pilgrims stranded at Shri Mata Vaishno Devi Shrine, Katra, are not asked to vacate their current lodgings and their needs are fully provided for. The Court also emphasized the issue concerning the security and availability of basic facilities to the migrant workers and directed the administration to ensure that the accommodation, health, care, and the needs of the migrant workers, are addressed, in letter and spirit. The Court also took stock of the lockdown situation in the UT, and addressed issues such as the availability of essentials in the far-flung areas of Gurez, Tangdhar, Machail and Uri, to ensure the provision of care reaches the dependents of healthcare personnel, government officials engaged in COVID-19 management, adequate supply to doctors in government hospitals of sufficient quantities of personal protective equipments (PPEs) including face-shields, masks, gloves, etc., ensuring the safety of and violence against healthcare professionals and clinical establishments.
Again, in Court on its Own Motion v. Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir, WP(C) PIL No. 5/2020, the High Court of Jammu & Kashmir directed the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board and the Union Territory's government to urgently take all decisions regarding the conduct of the Amarnath Yatra, keeping in view, that if infections escalate during the movement of the pilgrims, then, it would be impossible to deal with infections on the track. Eventually, the Amarnath Yatra, 2020, was cancelled after the observations made by the Court in the afore-mentioned order. The High Court of Jammu & Kashmir also observed that access to justice is a fundamental right and cannot be impeded. It has to be ensured to every citizen and courts are required to remain accessible at all times. The Court directed the Home Secretary, Jammu & Kashmir, to apprise the court about the impact of the restrictions on e-connectivity of the courts.
The Jammu & Kashmir High Court has also been directing various concerned authorities to formulate reports and apprise the Court about the issues of welfare, safety, basic needs of the J&K residents and others, and also taking note of inadequate status reports and lack of measures. The Court has also been directing the concerned authorities to file reports regarding steps taken with regard to prisoners in Jammu and Kashmir who are lodged in the Union Territory and other parts of India, in compliance with the directions passed by the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Suo Motu Writ Petition (C) No. 1/2020, In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Prisons.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court cancelled the summer vacation which was scheduled from 8th June, 2020 to 26th June, 2020, considering the severe hardships faced by the litigants in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, due to the impeded functioning of the Courts on account of lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The High Court has also cancelled the routine 15 days summer vacations in District and Subordinate Courts in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. As the Jammu & Kashmir High Court has two wings, one at Jammu and one at Srinagar, the Jammu and Kashmir High Court abolished the practice of separate Court timings for summer and winter sessions for Courts, so that there is no wastage of court time. The High Court also contributed a total sum of Rs. 70 lakhs towards the PM CARES Fund and the J&K Relief Fund, to help in combating the COVID-19 pandemic. J&K Judicial Academy has also been organizing online training programmes for the Judicial Officers and Induction Trainees so that there is continuity of activities of intellectual development. Online Mediation training programmes have also been organized for the Judicial Officers and Lawyers of Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir & Ladakh.
The Jammu & Kashmir High Court released guidelines for the functioning of District and Subordinate Courts and directed that matters related to Bail, Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act, Maintenance, Custody of children, Matters involving Injunctions, cases for final hearings, shall be treated as exceptionally urgent matters. The High Court of Jammu & Kashmir has also been providing financial assistance to the advocates practising in various courts in the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh and also to Munshis working with advocates.
The District & Subordinate Courts of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh have also been doing a commendable job in these difficult times. The Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh's Judiciary has taken concerted steps, ensuring access to justice remains uninterrupted, which is fundamental to preserve the rule of law in the democracy envisaged by the Constitution of India. Virtual hearing is the new normal and the Courts have successfully implemented it, to ensure that the judiciary rises to face the challenges presented by COVID-19. With these commendable efforts, the virtual hearings and the future of justice look promising. Justice, physically or virtually, has to be effectively dispensed at all times, in the words of Lord Chief Justice Hewart in the case of R v Sussex Justices ex parte McCarthy ([1924) 1 KB 256,  All ER Rep 233) when his lordship aptly enunciated, "Justice should not only be done but should manifestly and undoubtedly be seen to be done."