Senior advocates of the Bombay High Court have written to the Chief Justice Dipankar Datta urging him to consider allowing regular functioning of the Court at full strength as restrictions like social distancing etc will continue even after the present lockdown is lifted. But it will become very difficult for the High Court to resume regular functioning after reopening due to numerous fresh filings and a huge backlog of cases, the letter states.
Igbal Chagla, Janak Dwarkadas, Fredun E De Vitre, Navroz H Seervai, MP Bharucha and Darius Khambatta have contended that suppose lockdown in Mumbai continues till the end of June and considering the total number of fresh cases filed every day as Court functions at limited strength for limited hours, once it reopens the backlog of cases will be too much to handle.
Presently, all benches of the High Court are functioning for a limited number of hours (between 12-2 pm) at a limited strength. However, data available on the Bombay High Court's website indicates that as on June 30, 2019 over 4.5 lakh cases were pending. Further, between March 2 and March 20, 2020, 1,256 cases were filed (only on the Original Side) i.e. approximately 90 cases per day were filed.
The letter states-
"On this basis, it is safe to assume that even if normalcy is restored by June 30, which is most unlikely, approximately 6,700 fresh cases (that were held back during the lockdown) will be filed on resumption, the letter states.
The High Court will not be able to cope with the new filings, leave aside the backlog of cases, unless it resumes sittings of all available judges during usual court working hours. This is perfectly possible by making effective use of technology."
The representation also quotes CJI SA Bobde and Justice DY Chandrachud on the concept of e-filing as both inaugurated the Supreme Court's e-filing module on May 15. While the CJI said-
"E-filing has virtually brought the court registry into the chambers of advocates"
Justice Chandrachud stated- "E-filing will enhance the right of citizens to efficient justice delivery."
With regard to the video conference application earlier used by the High Court. The representation states-
"The video conference application earlier used by the High Court was not satisfactory. Even though a more robust platform is now used, connectivity remains a serious issue. This has resulted in periodic disruptions of the limited numbers of video hearings conducted"
Thus, following suggestions have been made to the Chief Justice -
1. The Court should hold hearings with the full strength of all available judges from 11 AM to 2 PM and 3 pm to 5 pm on all regular Court working days, consistent with the Supreme Court's sittings as reported in the media.
2. While mass transit is restricted the Court should make arrangements for bussing travel for all relevant staff of the Court. In this connection, the Kerala High Court has issued an Official Memorandum dated 15 May 2020 that "Steps are being taken to arrange conveyance facility from different locations in the district to the High Court and back, in coordination with KSRTC (Kerala State Road Transport Corporation).
3. All preparatory measures may be put in place now so that physical hearings may be resumed at the earliest.
4. E-filing facilities:
A. Consistent with the Supreme Court practice, e-filings should be available for all fresh filings and not restricted to 'very urgent' or 'urgent' cases.
B. All e-filings must be in searchable PDF format, with exhibits / annexures bookmarked and hyperlinked so that judges and lawyers can efficiently navigate through the record.
5. In respect of pending matters, the record will be required to be digitized before they can be listed. The High Court may consider employing a technically qualified agency for digitising the records and may also request assistance from the advocates on record/parties concerned.
6. If any assistance during hearings is required by judges to navigate through the record or screen sharing, junior lawyers or technical staff from Advocates' offices may be allowed to assist the Court.
7. The present system of listing matters on praecipes needs to be revamped: several suggestions have been made in this regard. (refer to the representation)
8. Video hearings for final disposal may be directed by the Court and should also be permitted with the consent of the parties so long as the above requirements are complied with.
9. Video hearings in all matters pending before 24 March 2020 may be directed by the Court and should also be taken up for hearing with the consent of the parties, so long as the entire record in fully searchable PDF format with hyperlinks and bookmarks is re-filed with the registry at least one week prior to the date fixed for hearing.
10. Under the present listing system, an unrealistic number of cases are listed before every judge / bench. It is suggested that only a realistic number of cases be listed (if possible, in staggered time slots) so that each bench is able to familiarise itself with the record in advance to ensure an expeditious hearing.
11. The pandemic should be used as an opportunity to streamline processes and increase efficiency for the long term.
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