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Judiciary In Times Of Covid-19

In the world full of fraudsters, a common man keeps his trust on the court of the land, irrespective of the dark history that our judicial system carries. In a country with almost 3 crore cases already pending with over 60,000 cases only in the Supreme Court, this COVID 19, officially declared pandemic has just added to the problems.

The main issue regarding the working of the courts was solved by the Supreme Court of the country on 23rd March, 2020 by declaring that the proceedings should continue by way of Video Conferencing. But this is not where the problems come to an end as the the Bar Council of India itself has agreed in a letter to the Chief Justice Of India that 90% of the Advocates and Judges are unaware of the technology and its nuances and so requested the CJI to continue with the traditional procedure once the lockdown is lifted.

Keeping in mind the basis of rule of law which holds Access to Justice as the fundamental right of individuals, the highest court of land of the country came up with an order on April 6, making the courts work through Video Conferencing.

Before we march towards the order of the Supreme Court let us first know what actually is Virtual courtroom.

The Virtual Courtroom is nothing but a court where the judges and the Advocates are not physically present in the court but through Video Conferencing, thereby discussing the matters sitting in their chambers or houses far away from each other.

One of the major concerns that pops up is how can the Advocate file a suit without going to the court?
The Government has spent almost 4000 crores in order to modernise the Court system by bringing in technology and procedures for E filing of documents, but there are only few who are well aware of the technology and according to the TIMES OF INDIA report only 1,282 Advocates have registered for E-filing of petitions during lockdown.

E filing of petitions may have factored the technological limitations of the various Advocates but it does includes various benefits and advantages and its features include, filings will be available 24/7, digitalized objection(s) scrutiny mechanism, e-payment of Court fees, incorporating digital signatures, dashboard - it will be a comprehensive e-folder of all individual data of respective lawyers. This technology was introduced on May 16, 2020 in the presence of CJI SA Bobde and Justice DY Chandrachud.

Supreme Court Order
Article 142 of the Indian Constitution bestows great power on the Supreme Court by making them the rule makers. It says that the law made by the Supreme Court under Article 142 shall be binding on all. Considering this power apt and keeping in mind the transmission rate of the virus and to reduce it through social distancing, the court pronounced an order for the functioning of the courts in India through video conferencing.

As mentioned above, the courts and the people associated with it may find it difficult to bring it in force, so the Supreme Court has directed the state officials of the National Informatics Centre to liaison with respective to High Courts and formulate a plan for virtual functioning of courts. The same authority was asked to lay down guidelines for the same, but no guidelines have been issued yet.

The Supreme Court while laying down the guidelines took into consideration the case of Maharashtra v. Praful Desai to show that the talks related to virtual courtrooms have been going on since a long time. This Court held that the term ˜evidence' includes electronic evidence and that video conferencing may be used to record evidence. It observed that developments in technology have opened up the possibility of virtual courts which are similar to physical courts.

The Court held:
Advances in science and technology have now, so to say, shrunk the world. They now enable one to see and hear events, taking place far away, as they are actually taking place...Video conferencing is an advancement in science and technology which permits one to see, hear and talk with someone far away, with the same facility and ease as if he is present before you i.e. in your presence...

fact he/she is present before you on a screen. Except for touching one can see, hear and observe as if the party is in the same room. In video conferencing both parties are in presence of each other... Recording of such evidence would be as per procedure established by law.

The order then laid down the guidelines to be followed by the courts till further notice.

The another major concern that lies in this process is the the limitation period that is given to the party to file the suit or to file the appeal to the higher authority and this is governed by the Limitation Act,1963

Limitation Act, 1963

The law was made to consolidate and amend the law for the limitation of suits and other proceedings and purpose connected there with.

Section 2 of the Act defines:

œperiod of limitation means the period of limitation prescribed for any suit, appeal or application by the Schedule, and œprescribed period means the period of limitation computed in accordance with the provisions of this Act;

Section 3 of this Act clearly states that every suit instituted, appeal preferred, and application made after the prescribed period shall be dismissed, although limitation has not been set up as a defence.

So, in the case of the pandemic that is going on, the highest court of land has come to the rescue of its people by making a suo moto order on 23rd of March allowing the limitation period in all cases to be exceeded with effect from 15th of March 2020.

This order was again made on the basis of the jusrisdiction granted to the court under Article 141 and 142 which makes it binding on all.

The order pronounced by the court is a blanket which covers all the laws and limitation period related to every appeal or filing of suit which also covers the exceptions granted under section 5 of the limitation Act which grants power to the courts to condone the delay in filing the suit or making an appeal.

This order can also be interpreted through the section 4 of the act which says that if the expiry of the said limitation period expires on a day when the court is closed then the appeal or the suit shall be filed on the very next day when the court reopens. So in this case it can be considered that the court for now is shut and the appeals or suits and its limitation period can be termed again when the courts start working again.

Guidelines by various High Courts:

  1. High Court Of Delhi

    On 29th May, 2020 the Delhi High Court, in the view of the pandemic and its increasing transmission rate decided to restrict its function as well as the functions of District Courts to urgent matters only till 14th of June, 2020.
    The urgent matters are scheduled to be heard through video conferencing. This decision was taken by the Administrative and General Supervisions Committee of the Delhi High Court headed by Chief Justice DN Patel.
    Before this order the Courts in Delhi had decided 20,726 urgent matters from Mach 24- May 19.
     
  2. High Court of Judicature at Bombay

    The Bombay High Court had released a circular May 4th allowing the courts to consider remand work and extremely urgent matters only until further orders.
    The court has also put a temporary suspension on the Annual General Tramsfer till April, 2021.
    The circular further states that the courts in Maharashtra, Goa, the union territories Daman and Diu, Dadra and Nagar Haveli shall follow the guidelines issued by the Maharashtra Government through Resolution No. Corona-2020/Pra. Kra. 58/ Health- 5 dated 25.04.2020
    The circular also contains the precautionary measures that should be taken by the people entering the court complex.
     
  3. High Court Of Meghalaya

    The Chief Justice of the Meghalaya High Court through the circular dated 02/06/2020 has restricted the activity of the Hgh Court as well as the subordinate courts to urgent matters only till 30/06/2020 or till further notice whichever is earlier.
     
  4. High Court of Judicature At Allahabad

    The High Court issued a circular dated 13/03/2020 making guidelines for the court staff, Advocates, student interns, and people belonging to media to avoid overcrowding and restricting the matters of court to only urgent matter.
     
  5. High Court At Calcutta

    The Registrar general of Calcutta High Court Rai Chattopadhyay on 28th of March issued a notification relating to having virtual courtrooms through Video Conferencing for hearing only extremely urgent cases.
    The Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court elaborated the instructions over filing of e petitions in the court.
    This was done to curb the transmission of the virus by encouraging social distancing and not letting people enter the court.
     
  6. High Court At Guwahati

    The Registrar General of Guwahati High Court issued a notification on April 15th which said that only urgent matters will be heard by the court through Video Conferencing in Principal seat in Guwahati.
    The notification also said that the same step has to be followed by all the district courts in the state.
     
  7. High Court Of Karnataka

    The High Court Of Karnataka introduced video conferencing of urgent cases in order to curb the transmission of COVID19 through a notification issued by the Registrar General of the High Court T.G. Shivashankar Gowda on March 23, 2020. The notification also specified how the Advocates could connect through video call or Skype.
     
  8. High Court Of Punjab and Haryana

    By an order passed on 22/03/2020 all the matters of the court in the state were restricted to hearing of urgent matters only and issued a mobile no. which would be used by the lawyers to file fresh filings.
    The notification also talked about the limitation period that may expire of the cases and said that it may be extended on the same pattern as is extended during vacations.

Can the Courts shut down completely?

Judiciary is the guardian of the Indian Constitution and the constitution being the mother of all laws, ensures a dignified life for all. So, the guardian who looks after the rights of the people can never be asked to go for a holiday.

If the judiciary shuts down it will surely hamper a number of things the most:
  1. Rule of Law

    The Rule Of Law guarantees the access of justice to all. It can be termed as the fundamental right of all and is recognised in nearly all the countries of this World. If the judiciary shuts down, the country will become a place where there is survival of the fittest. People who deserve to be free will be in the jails, trespassers will enjoy somebody else's property. The world would not be a place to live in. Judiciary is a place where the trust of people lies in. Each citizen believes that he or she will find justice on the doors of the judiciary. To sum up, I would cite Justice John Paul Stevens of the US Supreme Court, œIt is confidence in the men and women who administer the judicial system that is the true backbone of the rule of law.
  2. Backlog

    In a country with almost 3 crore pending cases, the judiciary can never afford a shut down. The Parliament is trying its best to make regulations through which quasi judicial bodies could be made which may reduce the burden on courts and in turn if it goes into a shut down, it will just worsen the situation even more.
    This list of problems that may arise is never ending and so I leave you with these two major issues.

Conclusion
Nobody can deny that this is an eye opener for the judiciary that it should make itself and the people associated with it familiar with the technology. COVID-19 is not the first and it is clearly not the last pandemic that has struck or is going to struck the world. Prevention is better than cure and so does the legal system should work on it.

This pandemic would have given a lot of convicts joy of moving out of the jails before time but I am sure that the people who have their cases pending in the court related to what not or the ones who have become a prey to somebody's fraud but cannot reach out to the court are the ones who are the real sufferers.

In the end I would say, the one who is shouldered with the responsibility of taking others should make sure that he is equipped with all the equipment's to achieve its goal. 

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