After a gap of 17 months, the Supreme Court on Wednesday reopened its gates for lawyers and litigants as it resumed physical hearing of cases in a limited manner. But the response was lukewarm, and most participants joined hearings virtually.
The Supreme Court had last year, in the wake of restrictions imposed to curb the spread of COVID-19, switched to the virtual mode to hear matters. Recently, with growing demands from the lawyers that the court resume physical hearing as COVID cases had dipped, Chief Justice of India N.V. Ramana had announced that the court would go off-line from September 1 in a limited manner.
The response to the resumption of physical hearings was less than enthusiastic, with majority of the participants choosing to join in through videoconferencing. For example, as the CJI's court assembled for the day on Wednesday, there were 92 participants, and almost all of them were online. Similar was the case in the other courtrooms on Wednesday, with majority of the lawyers and litigants choosing to join the hearings through virtual means.
According to the standard operating procedure issued by the Supreme Court for physical hearings, the option would be made available for lawyers and litigants on non-miscellaneous days for final hearing or for regular matters. The participants can choose to join in through videoconferencing.
Matters listed on miscellaneous days shall continue to be heard through video/teleconferencing mode, as per the SOP, which also limits the number of people to 20 in every courtroom.
The Supreme Court Bar Association, which had been demanding resumption of physical hearing, objected to certain rules in the SOP, describing them as a “non-starter” since the lawyers would not like to take the option for physical hearing with so many conditions attached.
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SCBA president Vikas Singh wrote to Ramana, complaining about the restrictions placed on lawyers through the SOP. He said prohibiting the entry of lawyers into the high-security area without special passes will dissuade them from applying for physical hearings.
“The high-security area has large open areas in the form of corridors where lawyers wait for matters. It also has a large number of bar rooms, libraries, canteens where the lawyers can sit with the COVID protocol in place,” he wrote.
Singh also criticised the move to limit the number of people in every courtroom to 20, saying it was arbitrary as the courtrooms differ in size and capacity. Incidentally, Singh attended hearings virtually on the opening day of the hybrid mode of hearing.
Currently, physical hearings will be limited to final hearing or regular matters on non-miscellaneous days—Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.