- Apprentice Lawyer
As the legal fraternity debated the incessant filing of petitions by "public spirited persons" and law students before the Supreme Court this year, the neighbouring constitutional court, the Delhi High Court, witnessed another year of caution and restraint in the sphere of public interest litigation.
Even during a pandemic-hit year, the High Court reiterated, time and again, that its jurisdiction under Article 226, especially in matters of PILs, was extraordinary and could not be invoked in a casual fashion.
Reinforcing the constitutionally mandated division of powers among the Judiciary, the Executive and the Legislature, the Delhi High Court was often seen exercising a “hands-off” approach in matters of policy and law-making.
"If there is a law, the Court can certainly enforce it; but Court cannot create a law or policy and seek to enforce it”, the High Court emphasized as it dismissed a PIL for payment of risk and hardship allowance to health workers amid COVID-19.
The Court acknowledged that although health workers were doing a commendable job during the pandemic, the Constitution of India did not permit it to direct or advise the Executive in matters of policy or sermonize qua any matters within the sphere of Legislature.
For similar reasons, a PIL seeking directions for an immediate lockdown in the national capital was turned down by the High Court.
A plea challenging "unreasonable, arbitrary" compensation announced for riots victims was also dismissed for being a matter of policy of the government.
As a matter of practice, the High Court encouraged PIL petitioners to vent their grievances to the authorities in the form of representations, instead of knocking on the Court’s door at the first instance.
A PIL seeking criminal action against Twitter for allegedly promoting the Khalistan Movement was turned down by the High Court after it found that the petitioner had not first made a representation to the Central government.
Throughout the year, the High Court attempted to maintain the strictest standards when it came to judging the "public-spiritedness" of PIL petitioners before it.
Finding that the petitioner in a challenge to Section 4 of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act, 1939 was the same person who had appeared before it in another PIL concerning army personnel, the Court called for an affidavit disclosing who the petitioner was.
In another matter, it directed a practising lawyer-cum-social worker to be "more careful in future" while filing petitions as PILs and asked that the present order be enclosed with all future PILs undertaken by her.
Calling out persons for filing "blackmailing type of PILs", the High Court did not shy away from imposing heavy costs on PIL petitioners.
“Everyone is a champion of bogus PILs, petitioners must come with homework. Why don't you come with a PIL on persons not paying taxes?”, the High Court often echoed.
Rs 25,000 costs were imposed on a PIL petitioner for pleading illegality of a construction, without any cogent evidence or minimal diligence. Another PIL which was based on a newspaper report was dismissed with costs of Rs 20,000.
Similarly, Rs 50,000 costs were imposed on a petitioner seeking financial assistance of Rs 70,000 crore from the Central government for the implementation of his project on maintaining a clean and healthy environment.
During the course of 2020, the High Court also reinforced certain legally accepted principles while dealing with PILs. It refused to entertain a PIL seeking financial aid and food for sex workers and the LGBT community for lack of groundwork.
A PIL for waiving off the rent of tenants during the pandemic was turned down by the High Court, which opined that charity beyond law was an injustice to others.
A plea for the inclusion of advocates under the Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises (MSME) Act was dismissed after the High Court observed that PIL was for the downtrodden and not for lawyers who were well-equipped to espouse their own causes.
The High Court, however, did not refrain from taking the authorities to task and passing significant orders in causes that needed immediate intervention.
Significant orders and directions were passed by the High Court in a PIL preferred in the aftermath of the riots in the North-East area of the national capital in the month of February 2020.
"Every victim must be visited by the highest State functionary. Those families which has lost members must be assured", the High Court ordered as it cautioned the authorities to remain alert so that the carnage caused during the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was not repeated.
Not only were directions passed for the safe passage of the injured, night Magistrates were also designated for granting urgent relief. The Delhi government was also asked to ensure setting up of shelters for those displaced.
Very shortly after passing orders to this effect, Justice S Muralidhar would find himself grabbing headlines for different reasons.
As the pandemic crippled the city, the High Court passed directions to push the Executive to work towards the protection of domestic violence victims, accommodation and well-being of outstation AIIMS patients, distribution of food grains to poor during the lockdown, cremation of those who died on account of COVID-19, ensuring beds in hospitals, and releasing salaries to doctors in MCD hospitals, among others. These orders were passed in PILs as well as suo motu matters.
A PIL seeking extension of financial help to advocates during the COVID-19 pandemic was also monitored by the High Court. The High Court was informed by the Bar Council of Delhi that it disbursed more than Rs 8 crore to approximately 16,000 advocates.
Holding that the digital divide violated Right to Education Act and Articles 14, 20, 21, the High Court, while disposing of a PIL, directed private unaided schools in the national capital, as well as Kendriya Vidyalayas, to provide gadgets to students from economically weaker sections of society for online classes.
Directions were also been issued to the Delhi government to formulate a Standard Operating Procedure for addressing post-COVID health complications.
The High Court also allowed residents to get themselves tested through RT-PCR for COVID-19, at their own expense, without producing a doctor's prescription.
Another significant PIL filed this year was in relation to Delhi University’s online open book examination (OBE) for its final year students.
While the PIL initially concerned itself with facilities for students with disabilities, the scope of the Court’s enquiry was soon expanded to the varsity’s capability to hold the online examination after the dates were deferred several times.
“Have some empathy for students”, the High Court told the University.
A close watch was maintained on the varsity's preparedness to conduct the online examination, timelines given in relation to the declaration of results, and issuance of comfort letters to foreign universities. Directions were even issued to the Indian Railways to ensure confirmed seats for students suffering from disabilities who were travelling to the city for the second phase of OBE.
The High Court also passed several important judgements and orders to tackle the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
It held that Reserve Bank of India (RBI) circulars issued to mitigate the resultant financial disruption were not applicable to defaults that occurred before pandemic.
The life of all existing interim orders, civil and criminal, was extended by the High Court from time to time. It also ruled that no separate petition under Section 29A of the Arbitration & Conciliation Act, 1996, was required to be filed in cases where the time limit for passing of an arbitral award expired during the COVID-19 lockdown.
In another significant development of the year, the High Court took up the issue of upgradation of infrastructure and internet facilities in the district courts.
Following orders pulling up the Delhi government for its indifferent approach and for making the lower judiciary run from pillar to post, the AAP government sanctioned over Rs 18 crore for several proposals in relation to procurement of routers, NAS devices, staff recruitment, WebEx links etc.
In the past year, the High Court welcomed Justice Subramonium Prasad from the Madras High Court and bid adieu to Justices Chander Shekhar, GS Sistani, IS Mehta, AK Chawla and Brijesh Sethi, who demitted office on superannuation. Justice Sangita Dhingra Sehgal resigned from her post as a Delhi High Court judge.