Court will not be able to cope with caseload if restricted functioning continues: Senior Lawyers urge that Bombay HC work at full strength

Court will not be able to cope with caseload if restricted functioning continues: Senior Lawyers urge that Bombay HC work at full strength

Six senior lawyers have written to the Bombay High Court Chief Justice proposing measures that may be adopted so that the Court can safely re-commence working at the available full strength amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bar & Bench

Six senior lawyers have written to the Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court, urging that the Court explore ways to start sitting at full strength again even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, lest the Court may not be able to deal with the caseload piling while it continues to sit on a restricted basis.

In this regard, the letter signed off by senior advocates Iqbal M Chagla, Janak D Dwarkadas, Fredun E De Vitre, Navroz H Seervai, Darius J Khambata and MP Bharucha highlights that,

"Our High Court will not be able to cope with the new filings, leave aside the backlog of cases, unless it resumes sittings of all available judges during usual court working hours. This is perfectly possible by making effective use of technology."
Letter to Bombay HC Chief Justice

With a view to reduce crowds and curb the risk of COVID-19 infection, and given the lockdown in place in the State for the same purpose, High Court hearings are presently limited to those in certain categories of urgent cases being heard by five judges who sit for two days in the week from 12 PM to 2 PM.

The letter by the senior lawyers acknowledge the case disposal rate since March 24 (when the first lockdown was announced) appear to be substantive given the Court's restricted functioning. However, it is pointed out that the lockdown is expected to continue in Maharashtra at least till the end of May.

Further, it is noted that even if the lockdown is eased, "inevitably normal work life will not be restored as social distancing and other restrictions, self-imposed or otherwise, will continue for an indefinite period."

"It is unthinkable - but nevertheless a reality - that the fabric of our democratic republic will continue to be imperilled by the continuing curtailment of access to justice. This needs to be remedied now", the letter asserts.

Further based on available data on the High Court website regarding the number of cases filed in March prior to the lockdown, the lawyers state that, "it is safe to assume that even if normalcy be restored by 30 June 2020, which is most unlikely, approximately 6,700 fresh cases (that were held back during the lockdown) will be filed on resumption."

Bearing these concerns in mind, and while also acknowledging that the present methods of video conference hearings have at times run into technical disruptions, the senior lawyers have proposed certain measures to resume the High Court's functioning amid the pandemic.

Notably, the lawyers have urged the High Court to immediately move towards the following proposals:

  • The Court should hold hearings with the full strength of all available judges from 11 AM to 2 PM and 3 PM to 5 PM on all regular Court working days, consistent with the Supreme Court’s sittings as reported in the media.

  • Since mass transit is prohibited amid the COVID-19 pandemic, arrangements must be made for the bussing of court staff akin to measures recently taken by the Kerala High Court.

  • All preparatory measures may be put in place now so that physical hearings may be resumed at the earliest.

  • E-Filing facilities consistent with the Supreme Court's practice should be made available for all fresh filings, and not just urgent filings.

  • The present system of listing matters on praecipes needs to be revamped.

  • A hybrid system (comprising both physical court sittings and video conference hearings) should be put in place so that advocates / parties who are either forbidden from, or unable to, travel on account of age or otherwise, can address the Court.

  • Under the present listing system, an unrealistic number of cases are listed before every judge / bench. It is suggested that only a realistic number of cases be listed (if possible, in staggered time slots) so that each bench is able to familiarise itself with the record in advance to ensure an expeditious hearing.

  • The pandemic should be used as an opportunity to streamline processes and increase efficiency for the long term.

Several other measures proposed by the lawyers have been detailed in their letter, which may be viewed here:

Representation - 17 May 2020.pdf

The senior lawyers have signed off the letter by requesting that the Chief Justice grant them an audience to discuss these measures and the way forward at the earliest.

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