How High Courts Conduct Hearings in Times of COVID-19

Responding to the surge in COVID-19 cases, high courts have adopted various measures to curb the spread of the infection.

The surge in the rise of COVID-19 cases has forced some high courts to reconsider how it conducts daily hearings and issue strict guidelines to regulate the entry of people within its premises.

On March 31, the Orissa high court issued a notification announcing its decision to revert to virtual hearings, while the Allahabad High Court on April 1 cancelled regular courts from April 5 onwards.

Lawyers' associations in Maharashtra—which has seen the sharpest rise in COVID-19 cases—and Madhya Pradesh have written to their respective chief justices seeking the promotion of virtual hearings along with the hybrid system. On Friday, Maharashtra reported 47,827 new Covid-19 cases, the highest since the pandemic began prompting the Centre to declare the situation "worrying".

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"Virtual hearings and e-filings have become the norm in both the Hon'ble Supreme Court as well as all the High Courts of the country. After facing hurdles in the initial months, slowly and gradually virtual hearings had been adopted as an intrinsic habit by the legal fraternity and we were able to witness how merit and competency enabled lawyers stationed at one place appearing and arguing in multiple Forums/Courts of the country simultaneously," the letter authored by Dr. Vijay Chaudhary, Chairman of the Bar Council read.

Last year, in light of the pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus, courts across the country went digital. When the Centre gradually eased restrictions allowing for the movement of people, the Supreme Court in October 2020 tweaked its guidelines issued on virtual hearings to allow High Courts to formulate their own rules on video conferencing.

There are several hearings which are solely physical or virtual, while many have adopted a hybrid method wherein courts sit physically on some days while conducting hearing virtually on others. To reduce the spread of infection, courts conducting physical hearings have incorporated measures like compulsory masks, glass partitions between judges and lawyers, along with the installation of microphone and speakers. High courts have also conducted vaccination drives for the judges and their families. the drive is also extended to those advocates, their spouses and office staff over the age of 45.

BOOM looks at how the high courts are hearing cases in these times.

Hybrid Hearings

Many high courts have adopted a hybrid approach to conducting hearings. This can mean two things – a situation where benches in high courts sit physically on certain days while conducting hearings virtually on the rest. Or a situation where judges are sitting physically but one or both parties may attend court via video conferencing.

At least two high courts—Punjab & Haryana and Telangana sit physically and conduct hearings virtually. With a total strength of 47, 12 single judge benches conduct physical hearings daily, while the rest conduct hearings virtually. In Telangana, one division bench and three single benches sit physically daily, while the rest conduct hearings through video conferencing.

High courts in Karnataka, Delhi, Tripura, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh among others are primarily physical hearings but allow lawyers to argue via video conferencing with prior permission.

Physical Hearings

Despite the surge in COVID-19 cases, the principal bench of the Bombay High Court in Mumbai has been steadfast in conducting physical hearings even as its benches in Nagpur and Aurangabad have adopted virtual hearings. The Common High Court for the Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, high courts in Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand have been conducting physical hearings as well.

Virtual Hearings

Several high courts have continued to operate virtually. Gujarat High Court went a step ahead and became the first court to live-stream hearings conducted by the Chief Justice. High Courts in the northeast like Guwahati, Sikkim and Meghalaya are mostly virtual.

In Kerala, while the bench led by the chief justice conducts physical hearings, the rest of the benches are virtual. The high court in Tamil Nadu is primarily virtual with certain benches conducting physical hearings.

Updated On: 2021-04-04T22:16:52+05:30
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