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"How Long Can We Tell People Your People That Their Case Is Not Important Amid COVID":Justice Gautam Patel

Mehal Jain
29 Jun 2021 5:02 PM GMT
How Long Can We Tell People Your People That Their Case Is Not Important Amid COVID:Justice Gautam Patel
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"I can't keep putting people on hold, saying 'Sorry, your case is unimportant because it is not urgent'.

"How long can we tell people that their case is not important enough as it is not urgent to be heard amid COVID?", asked Bombay High Court Judge Justice GS Patel on Tuesday. Justice Patel was speaking at a panel discussion at the launch of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy's Maharashtra State office and the release of its Briefing Book on Fifteen Suggested Legal Reforms for...

"How long can we tell people that their case is not important enough as it is not urgent to be heard amid COVID?", asked Bombay High Court Judge Justice GS Patel on Tuesday. 

Justice Patel was speaking at a panel discussion at the launch of Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy's Maharashtra State office and the release of its Briefing Book on Fifteen Suggested Legal Reforms for Maharashtra.

Justice Patel remarked that it has been extraordinarily frustrating over the past 1 year to "not be able to do anything which resembles our normal and usual workload". He stated that it has become a very serious issue when there are courts sitting for limited hours a day and listening to a limited class of matters, putting everybody else on hold- "There is something enormously tragic which is happening. Take a regular case of succession to an estate. There is no tearing urgency there, but how long does that estate be held up? There is a section of justice which is not being addressed because of the Covid situation!"

The judge inquired from a medical expert on the panel if they believed the country will ever achieve 0 COVID cases anywhere, if we will ever get rid of Covid completely.

"I can't keep putting people on hold, saying 'Sorry, your case is unimportant because it is not urgent'. This is something which we have not addressed- we need to set up an infrastructure to say, 'Here is the alternative, just get on with it!' We have to find and devise mechanisms to work around the pandemic!", he said.

He remarked that while the Supreme Court E-Committee is working extensively to standardise, simplify and make uniform forms, procedures and rules for digital usage, unless the redundant details are discarded, it will not be effective.

"Sometimes, we need information to prevent fraud, impersonation. But why do we want somebody's date of birth or electricity bill? This is an old, archaic requirement. The classic example is your liquor license- you are asked if you require liquor for medicine purposes. How relevant are these requirements? Are you seriously supposed to say you need liquor for the betterment of your health? You need to relook at some of this, make it more common-sensical", he said.

"Laws in the public health system need to give the administrator much more room to manoeuver and innovate quickly in a rapidly-changing scenario. Let us not over-regulate. Let us not wait for solutions to come from courts".

"There is an issue pending in the High Court about door-to-door vaccination (as regards old aged or disabled persons). This issue should not be in the court at all. There is no law prohibiting door-to-door vaccination for a particular class of people. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) did not have to wait for the court to do this. It only arises in the court when the court asks the BMC why it cannot do it!", continued the judge.
"Was there any law which stopped the BMC from saying that for persons of a certain age or with movability issues or with respiratory issues, we will need you to provide us the following information and we will make arrangements to come to you for vaccination? For this generic concept of door-to-door, why did you require the Court to intervene? And this was a cloudy argument that when you are knocking at the door, then there may be 10 people behind it. Will you vaccinate the whole lot or only those who can't come to you?", said the judge.
Mentioning how everybody speaks of the great job of COVID management that the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) has done in city as densely-packed as Mumbai, Justice Patel observed that it was because the MCGM was able to pivot rapidly and adjust to the emerging challenges without being constrained by too many laws and regulations.
He remarked that there was a discretionary element in how the BMC could respond in a Public Health Emergency and set up new measures at management and operational level- "The BMC initiated to stop the labs from reporting the COVID test results to the people and instead required them to report to the BMC, whereafter the BMC training squad would go to the houses of those who tested positive and make arrangements for treatment and hospitalisation in coordination with the government. This is absolutely brilliant!"
The judge was of the opinion that the administration needs to be unconstrained to take decisions without having to go to court to answer the Court's question- "Law can't micromanage or predict everything in a rapidly-changing situation. Every officer will tell you they need to be left to do their job instead of being trapped in court only to be made to wait there for 4 to 5 hours!"
The judge stated that where the court finds that there has been a failure to act the Executive, the court's intervention may be the correct way to go about it. But where the court is concerned with 'why can't you do more' or 'why can't you do something even more', which he said is basically the garb of many PILs, then there is a head-to-head confrontation between the judiciary and the executive. While the Executive may say they cannot do something for "X, Y, Z" reasons, the judges may not be equipped to appreciate those reasons. "A failure to govern will invite judicial interference. But demanding that the Executive up its game and constantly asking why you can't do it, that is when there transpires a breakdown or a discord. The judiciary has to question whether it has the expertise to go that far", articulated Justice Patel.

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