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.
In this series, we have taken up Allahabad High Court, one of the oldest and largest High Courts in the Country, and its virtual adaptations in the time of pandemic.
CoviD-19 Position in the State of Uttar Pradesh
As on 16th June, 2020 the total number of CoviD-19 cases in Uttar Pradesh has crossed 13, 000 with 400 casualties and over 8000 recoveries. There has reportedly been an increase in the rate of addition of new cases since the easing of lockdown restrictions under Unlock 1.0. While the country struggles with containing the spread of the Coronavirus infection, the Allahabad High Court has done remarkably in devising innovative ways for the judiciary to cope with the pandemic while being mindful of the risks involved in physical functioning of courts.
It is a sad reality that absence of physical functioning of the courts, majority of the lawyers in the state are on the verge of starvation. Though it is said that one has to live with the pandemic, in reality, it not possible while the numbers of the infected are going up .
Even though the Allahabad High Court has a large volume of pending cases, the efforts made by are well reflected in the results which show that steps to deal with the huge pendency are underway. On 15th April, the court began hearing cases through Video Conferencing. The HC has since been operating through virtual benches hearing cases on a daily basis, which has increased from 7 in April 2020 to 26 at Allahabad and 19 at Lucknow currently, a considerable number. In just over two months, with only 44 actual working days since April, more than 10,000 cases have been listed for hearing. Between 23rd March 2020 and 5th June 2020 the court has given 5,469 final judgements and orders. During the same period 4,951 and 2,116 fresh cases were instituted at Allahabad and Lucknow respectively.
There are 74 districts working under the superintendence of Allahabad High Court. In the month of May, the district courts collectively took up 78,372 cases and decided 24,345 in total, out of which 13,657 were decided in Virtual Courts. About 75% of these were "matters relating to judicial remand of under-trial prisoners. Livelaw is in the process of collating more district wise data. The positive aspect is, the HC has issued the detailed guidelines issued from time to time have for simplification of the procedure to deal with bail matters.
Regarding the proactive measures, the Bench headed by the Chief Justice Govind Mathur, has suo moto taken up following of Public Interest Litigations:
The High Court has progressively eased the restrictions towards physical functioning. The chart below lists out a chronological series of developments since the functioning was suspended in March until the present.
23rd March, 2020
The HC released a notification suspending operation and only mentioning of "imminently emergent and urgent cases" was allowed through phone.
25th March, 2020
Notification dated 23rd march, 2020 which suspended operation of the court was modified to allow for mentioning of urgent cases through email.
11th April, 2020
The HC issued a detailed Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) including instructions for e-filing of urgent matters and procedure for participation of parties in hearing through video conferencing.
15th April, 2020
The HC began hearing through video conferencing.
30th May, 2020
The HC issued guidelines for its reopening with measures such as mandatory sanitization of the premises as a precondition for opening the court. Not more than 6 advocates are permitted to remain in the court room at a time, and advocates residing in 'hotspots' or containment zones will not be allowed to enter the premises or submit any documents, except through email.
Additionally, physical filing of petitions in the High Court was permitted, with all safety precautions such as thermal checks and mandatory hand-washing before entry is allowed into the court premises. Other guidelines included suspension of dress code to a certain degree.
3rd June, 2020
Guidelines were issued for the resumption of physical hearing at the subordinate courts. The guidelines also clarified that those subordinate courts which fall in the containment zones shall not be opened.
8th June, 2020
Physical hearing began at the High Court and subordinate courts. Facilities like canteen and advocates' chambers remain closed, and court premises are deep sanitized bi-weekly.
15th June, 2020
A Press Release has been released by the High Court providing the information on the status of operation of the High Court and the subordinate courts during the lockdown.
The Court has made efforts to reduce the spread of the virus through automated thermal check machines and foot-operated sanitizer dispensers installed at multiple places along the corridors of the court. The number of staff working on the court premises has been reduced to the bare minimum with "all protective measures such as face mask, face shields, gloves, sanitizers, etc."
Some of the guidelines such as allowing only virtual hearing for remand or other judicial work in respect of undertrial prisoners, providing a minimum of one or two courtrooms in subordinate court complexes for video conferencing, a dedicated email channel for receiving bail applications are worth noticeable. To deal with medical emergency, the court has made arrangements for "approximately 12 teams of doctors and medical staff" along with 2 ambulances.
Though there appears to be many infrastructural challenges, a positive and proactive approach is visible in the functioning of the High Court. Even though virtual courts are functioning with limited bandwidth, improvement of technology for an effective and inclusive lawyering is very essential. Since exposure to technology is almost nil to many lawyers practising in the rural areas, there is a possibility of exclusion of such tech challenged lawyers from in the justice delivery system. This issue is not confined Allahabad High Court alone. There is a need to build a uniform system of virtual operation for all the courts in the country. This can be ensured by creating a single online platform of operation for all the courts with better bandwidth for hassle-free functioning of virtual courts.