COVID-19: Access to Justice and survival of stakeholders in the legal system

COVID-19: Access to Justice and survival of stakeholders in the legal system

The world today is under siege with the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus.

Whilst the health of the general public at large is of prime importance in a situation like this, one cannot set aside the economic impact of the pandemic, which has showcased the potential to wreak havoc of exponential proportions.

Already, stock markets around the world have shed their high growth, and the world it seems, is likely to enter into an untimely recession. This would have a severe impact on all sectors of the economy, and the legal sector would be no exception.

Each professional be, it chartered accountants, lawyers, resolution professionals, company secretaries etc. is contributing to the society as well as the economy in many ways. Many of us, especially the young professionals/start-ups also have a team to sustain during the lockdown.

If we consider for instance a mid-size individual advocates' chamber or a small law firm, it usually consists of a team of 4-6 lawyers, 1-2 clerks, 1-2 office boys, a washroom cleaning staff, a trash collector etc. All these persons are dependent upon the revenue generated by legal services in the form of court appearances, advisories etc. being carried out by the owners/founder.

Thus, on an average, 8-10 employees are dependent for their livelihood through the operations of such offices. There would, of course, additionally be photocopiers, stenographers, typists etc who would indirectly rely on the operations of the office. Thus, the larger the office, the larger would be the dependency.

Most advocates would want to support their staff in such times of unforeseen calamity, and they would want to continue to pay (at least till the time they can) them. A typical chamber would usually earn from appearances and filings in court, whereas only a few would earn from advisory and consultancy.

Since the courts are closed till further notice, the current earning for most advocates is extremely low or nil. Thus, the lockdown is impacting the very root of livelihood for legal professionals. One needs to acknowledge this economic impact that the Coronavirus outbreak in tandem with the lockdown is having on the legal sector today and a solution must be found to tackle the same.

The question that we need to answer is whether we are going to keep the entire justice delivery system shut down and suspended till the lockdown or are we going to think forward and address the issue at hand and find a long lasting solution for the same.

Moreover, rights of litigants, who depend upon advocates and legal professionals to put forth their case before the court, cannot be set aside in toto, which seems to be case due to the current crisis.

With no immediate end in sight to the current crisis at hand, the courts cannot remain shut indefinitely. The litigants still require a justice delivery system (even if not speedy). The current crisis needs to be moulded in a way to our advantage to provide a justice delivery system which may even work in such trying times.

There might be situations which may be extremely urgent on their own facts, and at least an opportunity to show such urgency before a court of law needs to be provided. We cannot prejudge urgency on the basis of our understanding, since each person may have his own test of urgency given his/her situation.

Most of the courts in metropolitan cities either have adequate infrastructure or can have it easily in place, in some form of video conferencing. Most advocates have laptops with cameras and an internet connection, and if nothing, at least each one has a smartphone.

Thus, in addition to the extremely urgent cases which are being carried out through video conferencing, other sets of cases where pleadings are complete and the subject matter is ripe for hearing may be taken up as well.

Regular cases, final disposals and leave granted matters can certainly be taken up. There would be no harm if courts sit through the entire day and attend other matters through video conferencing, since the set up for the day is already done and the staff for the same is also available.

Of course, there will be roadblocks and issues, but those need to be effectively resolved. This may very well be the best opportunity for us to further expand our E-court facilities on a larger scale.

Let us also not forget that a lot of our brothers and sisters in the legal fraternity across the country are virtually daily wagers and there are families dependent upon them and their salaries. Therefore, there is a need for all the stakeholders to get the ball rolling and think of taking appropriate measures to regain the lost momentum.

We must ensure that while doing so, there are adequate measures to ensure the safety of people involved in the process, especially the court staff.

Legal services are also essential activities that are urgent for all those who knock on the doors of justice. One can never deny access to justice to anyone, even in times of a lockdown. We may have to innovate, and the delivery system may have to be tweaked according to these special circumstances, but there cannot be a blanket ban on one’s right to approach the court in times of need.

The author is an Advocate on record before the Supreme Court of India

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