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 HC, and will continue with the effort to cover all High Courts in India.
The State of Sikkim, located in northeast India, is the second smallest state in the country and has the lowest population among states. The Sikkim HC was established in 1975 at Gangtok, and has a sanctioned judge strength of 3. The current Chief Justice, appointed in October 2019, is Justice Arup Kumar Goswami.
Covid situation in Sikkim
As on 30th June, 2020 Sikkim has a total of only 88 cases, with 49 patients already recovered, discharged or migrated and 0 deaths (Source: mygov.in). The state had its first Covid case in late May, much later than other states. Its relative isolation from the mainland of the country has played a role in keeping the spread of the virus quite low.
The Sikkim HC became conscious of the need to declare suspension of regular functioning much before other High Courts in the country. On 18th March, 2020, taking note of the Central Government advisory, it issued a notification to ensure social distancing. Facilities which were not absolutely necessary, such as the HC museum, were closed down.
In order to have a better comprehension, the measures adopted by the HC during Covid-19 are listed below;
18th March, 2020
The HC issued Guidelines by a notification noting that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare had issued advisories which discouraged mass gatherings and gave directions for strict compliance. The guidelines restricted the entry and exit points to the court complexes, encouraged measures for minimum presence of litigants and advocates wherever possible, ordered leniency in dealing with cases where party or advocate is absent, dates for cases were advised to be spaced out to avoid too many cases on one day, undertrials were allowed to be produced remotely from jail through Video Conferencing (VC).
HC museum was closed for visitors.
The same day similar instructions were issued for the subordinate courts.
All functions and gatherings in courts were cancelled and a dedicated team headed by the respective jurisdictional District Judge was ordered to be constituted for monitoring the situation under guidance from the HC.
These directions were initially made effective till 31st March, 2020.
24th March, 2020
In a circular, the HC ordered that in compliance of Supreme Court's Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 03/2020 (In Re: Cognizance for extension of limitation), which was passed the previous day, the limitation period of all proceedings shall stand be extended indefinitely until further orders w.e.f. 15th March 2020.
In a separate circular, the HC Registry taking note of the notification of the state government issued certain instructions to arrange restricted functioning of the HC and Subordinate Courts till 4th April, 2020. The cases fixed for hearing till 4th April were deferred and only urgent cases were allowed to be listed for hearing, as far as possible through VC.
A Standard Operating Procedure was made available on the HC's website.
30th March, 2020
Hearing through Video Conferencing began at the High Court.
Further, due to the nationwide lockdown for three weeks announced on midnight of 24th March, the HC extended the validity of previous instructions (which were issued on 18th March and 24th March) making arrangements for restricted functions till 14th April, 2020.
14th April, 2020
Noting the extension of the nationwide lockdown, the HC notified that the arrangements made for restricted functioning of courts in the state previously would continue to apply till 20th April.
18th April, 2020
A circular was issued in continuance of that of 14th April, wherein it was notified that the HC and District Courts will continue to function in accordance with instructions issued previously (18th and 24th March 2020) till 3rd May, 2020.
Further instructions in the circular stated that the VC facilitation centres in HC and District Courts will be made available to litigants and advocates.
Court staff attendance in all courts was limited to 1/3rd at a time to ensure that urgent administrative works are attended to.
21st April, 2020
The circular dated 18th April was superseded and the courts were directed to revert to the earlier arrangement, effectively nullifying the instructions allowing 1/3rd court staff in office and access to on campus VC facilitation centres. (However, this was later restored)
27th April, 2020
A helpline number was started to receive any complaint with regard to visual quality or audibility of feed during the video conferencing proceedings. This was done in view of directions passed by the Supreme Court in Suo Motu Writ (Civil) No. 5/2020 dated 6th April 2020 (Re: Guidelines for Court Functioning Through Video Conferencing During Covid-19 Pandemic)
2nd May, 2020
The HC notified that due to further extension of the nationwide lockdown till 17th May, the courts would continue functioning in the restricted manner as before.
The facilitation centres were reopened for access to litigants and advocates when needed, the filing section was to remain open during the first half and a roster duty arrangement was to be made to ensure that urgent administrative works are attended, with not more than one-third of the employees attending the Office at a time.
17th May, 2020
The restricted functioning of the court as per existing arrangements was extended till 31st May, 2020 due to further extension of the nationwide lockdown.
23rd May, 2020
A notification was issued reiterating that the existing arrangements would continue till 31st May, 2020.
However, for functioning of courts starting 1st June, 2020 fresh instructions were issued, including the following:
This Circular was made effective until further orders.
1st June, 2020
Physical functioning of courts was resumed, whenever necessary, in accordance with instructions issued on 23rd May, 2020.
3rd June, 2020
HC notified that "Rules for Video Conferencing for Courts, 2020" would apply to all courts in Sikkim. These rules were notified in the state gazette previously on 15th May. The preface of the rules states that the purpose is to consolidate, unify and streamline the procedure relating to use of VC for courts in the interest of expediency.
The suspension of physical functioning and the measures taken early on in the pandemic are commendable steps taken by the Sikkim HC. The fact that the instructions issued on 18th March, 2020 were continued without major modifications until the end of May shows that the HC acted with much foresight in ordering restriction of court functions.
According to information communicated to LiveLaw by the Sikkim HC Registry, during the period between 23rd March and 5th June the HC has passed 8 judgements and 105 orders and between 23rd March and 12th June, a mere 16 cases were instituted. The numbers seem small, but it must be kept in mind that Sikkim is a small state, both area-wise and population-wise.
Despite the restrictions introduced, all the benches in the HC were operational throughout the period of restricted functioning from mid-March to the end of May. Hearing through VC began on 30th March, 2020 with an average of 10 matters listed each working day per bench for urgent hearing. The way things were handled in the Sikkim HC reflects consistency and willingness to adapt to change in circumstances. The HC conducts hearings using multiple VC platforms, such as Cisco webex, Jitsi Meet and Vidyo app and since 1st June, it has been functional both online and physically, if necessary.
A very laudable step taken promoting digital access is the opening of Video Conferencing Facilitation Centres in the HC as well as in the District Courts. Litigants and Advocates who cannot access online facilities otherwise can easily do so on the court premises, making justice delivery smooth and uninterrupted by the external circumstances to a large extent. Measures such as mandatory face masks and sanitizers and adherence to social distancing norms remain in place to ensure safety of those entering court premises.
On 15th May, 2020 the "Rules for Video Conferencing for Courts, 2020" was notified in the Sikkim Government Gazette. The Rules include detailed explanation for various aspects and procedures for functioning of courts through VC. The separate sections include general principles governing VC, recommended settings for software and hardware, instructions for preparatory arrangements, detailed procedure for conducting hearing VC including application for appearance, submission and examination of evidence and arguments. Other information given in the Rules includes rules on online service of summons and witness examination.
The Rules are a very comprehensive set of instructions, and will definitely promote uniformity in the online court system throughout the state. This step must be noted by other High Courts across India, which can use it as a model for devising their own rules to govern conduct of VC hearings. Further, there is a need to realise that a pan-India set of rules is the need of the hour and the Supreme Court must proactively work to ensure that the cause of justice does not suffer due to procedural irregularities and lack of timely action.
The Sikkim HC has been vigilant of the situation and has provided a successful example of efficiency and quick-thinking in the Indian Judiciary. The systematic approach, with least cumbersome instructions serve practicality and expediency and must be appreciated. However, there remain certain difficulties in the system, such as lack of provision for remote access to litigants and lawyers who do not have the means to afford personal devices and internet connections. Another aspect which was largely ignored by the Bench was the lack of financial aid to needy lawyers at the Bar, however with the efforts of the Bar Association some aid was provided. An advocate at the Sikkim HC wrote to a local newspaper stating
"The Bar Association of Sikkim has done a commendable job by providing financial assistance to the needy Advocates and also trying to give its full assistance to Advocates at the time of filing cases during the lockdown."
In this regard, there needs to be a conscious effort by the Apex Court in consonance with state judiciaries to devise a plan moving forward in the digital age, pandemic, or no pandemic.