The Bombay High Court on Friday decided to allow all lawyers in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region who wish to travel in local trains to attend physical hearings on a trial basis until the next hearing in the matter regarding petitions filed by the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa and others seeking directions for inclusion of lawyers and their clerks in the list of essential services.
Division bench of Chief Justice Dipankar Datta and Justice GS Kulkarni extended the benefit granted to advocates appearing before the high Court via order dated September 15, to advocates appearing in other Courts as well after hearing the Advocate General of Maharashtra and Additional Solicitor General at length along with advocates for petitioners.
At the outset, AG Ashutosh Kumbhakoni stated that this was not an adversarial litigation and began his submissions-
"We have no objection to increasing the number of local trains running daily and their frequency as well. But there are three things that members of the public will have to follow-
(i)Wearing A Mask
But the problem is that people do not wear masks even still! I travel everyday and I see so many people not wearing masks. What is the problem in wearing masks I do not understand. It seems like people would much rather wear an oxygen mask in the ICU rather than the mask outside."
It was a fortunate situation for the state that figures are climbing down presently but whenever a sector is opened, we ensure that we look at all aspects and once we open, the numbers do rise but we have the capacity to deal with that rise, numbers do not reach the threshold. That is the reason that we are doing this gradually, step-by-step, AG submitted.
AG Kumbhakoni also argued that people are removing their masks and talking. In buses, trains people are removing masks and talking. On the scales of justice, on one hand we have inconvenience faced by the public and on the other a direct threat to their lives- AG Kumbhakoni vehemently argued. He also referred to the death of singer SP Balasubramaniam-
"I have read media reports stating that the singer had shared a microphone will someone and got infected. Today he is no more! So people have to take this seriously and understand the gravity of the situation. Your Lordships if we allow everyone to travel and something happens to one of them, we do not want their blood on our hands."
On the other hand, Central Railway's Counsel Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh appeared on behalf of the Central Railways and submitted that his client has no difficulty if the number of trains are increased to include non-essential services as well.
ASG Singh submitted the following before the Court-
"Yesterday, 2.10 lakh people travelled in local trains, the total capacity however is 3.26 lakh. Moreover, the actual seating capacity on each train is 1200 and after social distancing, it comes down to 720."
At this juncture, the Chief Justice alluded to the suggestion given to State to allow non-essential services also to use local trains and asked the Advocate General-
"Has the demand by the public to travel in locals been assessed?"
AG replied- We will do it
CJ- That must be done!
"You have to decide about the train travel soon as media reports suggest that there will be a second wave of the virus in December-January. In March Corona was unknown to us but now we have to draw from past experience of six months. What about the Kolkata Metro example?," Chief Justice Datta enquired from ASG Anil Singh and the AG, referring to the colour coded e-pass system started by Kolkata metro to ensure limited number of passengers on every train in order to avoid overcrowding.
AG Kumbhakoni submitted that it is not easy to open up trains to all right now.
ASG Singh on the other hand, submitted data regarding the number of passengers travelling in different time slots throughout the day and suggested that staggered timing for different sectors can be introduced in order so that frequency can be increased without a spike in cases.
Court then suggested that State and Railways should sit together and devise a plan-
"Let it not be left to the officers only, let the ministers get involved as well. Also, you have to involve all stakeholders as well. It cannot be like a thumb rule which you formu;late and they follow (referring to stakeholders)."
Senior Advocate Milind Sathe appeared on behalf of the Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa and submitted that several lawyers travel in local trains to reach various courts located in the MMR region. He suggested that lawyers could be permitted to travel between 10 am and 2 pm.
Appearing on behalf of one of the petitioners, Advocate Abhay Anturkar adopted the submissions made by Adv Sathe and added that he seeks registered clerks of lawyers also to be added in the list of essential services allowed to travel in locals along with lawyers.
Many times physical copies of documents are required in court and if registered clerks of lawyers are allowed, that would be greatly beneficial to lawyers. Other High Court have allowed registered clerks, Anturkar contended.
After hearing all parties extensively, the bench noted-
"We are thinking of extending the benefit of travel in interim order passed earlier to lawyers and clerks in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Let's see how this experiment works."
As per the said interim order, daily passes are issued to advocates who wish to attend physical hearing.
Next date of hearing in the matter is October 19.