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The column highlights the directions and orders issued by the Supreme Court during the Coronavirus lockdown
The Coronavirus outbreak has engulfed the whole world, leaving countless people dead and incalculable people affected. The Central and state governments are working hand in hand to put a stop to this pernicious virus.
During this time, the Supreme Court and High Courts of our country have taken steps to address various issues arising out of the lockdown.
In this write-up, some of the crucial efforts made in the form of directions and orders issued by the Supreme Court during the COVID-19 lockdown are highlighted.
Constitution of High-Powered Committee in each state/union territory for release of prisoners on parole or interim bail (dated March 23, 2020)
In Suo Motu Writ Petition (C) No. 1/2020, In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Prisons, a Bench of Chief Justice SA Bobde, and Justices L Nageswara Rao and Surya Kant directed that prisons must ensure maximum possible distancing among the prisoners, including undertrials.
The Bench also directed that the physical presence of all the undertrial prisoners before the courts must be stopped forthwith and recourse to video conferencing must be taken for all purposes. The transfer of prisoners from one prison to another for routine reasons was also prohibited, except for purpose of decongestion. The Court further held,
"Also, the transfer of prisoners from one prison to another for routine reasons must not be resorted except for decongestion to ensure social distancing and medical assistance to an ill prisoner. Also, there should not be any delay in shifting sick person to a Nodal Medical Institution in case of any possibility of infection is seen."
The Bench further directed that each State/Union Territory shall constitute a High Powered Committee comprising:
(i) Chairman of the State Legal Services Committee,
(ii) the Principal Secretary (Home/Prison)
(ii) Director General of Prison(s)
This Committee was empowered with determining which class of prisoners can be released on parole or on interim bail for such period as may be thought appropriate. The Bench suggested that each State/Union Territory consider the release of prisoners who have been convicted or are under trial for offences for which the prescribed punishment is up to 7 years or less, with or without fine and the prisoner has been convicted for a lesser number of years than the maximum.
[Read the order]
Directions for the interest of children who fall within the ambit of the Juvenile Justice Act (dated April 3, 2020)
In Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 4/2020, In Re: Contagion of COVID-19 Virus in Children Protection Homes, a Bench of Justices L Nageswara Rao and Deepak Gupta issued a slew of directions to prevent the spread of the Coronavirus in Child Care Institutions (CCIs). These include children in need of care and protection, children in conflict with the law in Observation Homes, and children in foster and kinship care.
The Child Welfare Committees were directed to monitor cases telephonically for children who have been sent back to their families and to coordinate with the District Child Protection Committees and Foster Care & Adoption Committees and establish online help desks and support systems for queries at the state level for children and staff in CCIs.
It was also directed that the Juvenile Justice Boards and Children Courts take measures for organizing online video sessions for conducting inquiries and to consider taking steps to release children alleged to be in conflict with law, unless there are clear and valid reasons for the application of the proviso to Section 12, JJ Act, 2015.
The authorities were also directed to ensure adequate budgetary allocation to meet the costs that are likely to arise for the effective management of the pandemic. CCIs were directed to take necessary steps to practice, promote and demonstrate positive hygiene behaviour and monitor their uptake, conduct regular screening of children lodged in institutions, and follow the Health Referral System.
[Read the order]
Guidelines for court functioning through video conferencing during COVID-19 pandemic (dated April 6, 2020)
In Suo Motu Writ Petition (Civil) No. 5/2020, In Re: Guidelines for Court Functioning Through Video Conferencing During COVID-19 Pandemic, a Bench of CJI Bobde and Justices DY Chandrachud and L Nageswara Rao directed that all measures shall be taken by the Supreme Court and by the High Courts to reduce the need for the physical presence of all stakeholders within court premises and to secure the functioning of courts in consonance with social distancing guidelines.
It was directed that the Supreme Court of India and all High Courts are authorized to adopt measures required to ensure the robust functioning of the judicial system through the use of video conferencing technologies. It was directed that the district courts in each state shall adopt the mode of video conferencing prescribed by the concerned High Court, and the Court shall duly notify and make available the facilities for video conferencing for such litigants who do not have the means or access to video conferencing facilities.
It was further directed that video conferencing shall be mainly employed for hearing arguments whether at the trial stage or at the appellate stage and the presiding officer shall have the power to restrict entry of persons into the court room.
Conduct of COVID-19 tests should be done free of cost (dated April 8, 2020)
In Writ Petition (Civil) Diary No(s). 10816/2020, Shashank Deo Sudhi V. Union of India, a Bench of Justices Ashok Bhushan and S Ravindra Bhat directed that the tests relating to COVID-19, whether in approved government laboratories or approved private laboratories, shall be done free of cost. It was further directed that tests relating to COVID-19 must be carried out in NABL accredited labs or any agencies approved by WHO or ICMR.
COVID-19 tests by private labs should be done free of cost only for EWS, those eligible under Ayushman Bharat Yojana (dated April 13, 2020)
Modifying its order dated April 8, the Bench directed that free testing for COVID-19 shall be carried out for persons eligible under Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Aarogya Yojana and any other category of economically weaker sections of the society. It was also directed that the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare may consider as to whether any other categories of the weaker sections of the society were also eligible for the benefit of free testing.
The Supreme Court has risen to the occasion and has put its best foot forward to preserve the rule of law in our country envisaged by the Constitution of India, even at this cataclysmic juncture. The High Courts of our country have also taken steps in ensuring that access to justice remains ubiquitous and approachable.
The use of modern technology for enhancing justice dispensation has been profusely encouraged by the Supreme Court of our country so that hearings can be carried out effectively and successfully through virtual mode.
The author is a student of Lloyd Law College and a Campus Ambassador for Bar & Bench.