High on board hearings, celebrity litigation, and more: The Bombay High Court in 2020

The fact that these celebrity cases consumed a considerable amount of judicial time, to the exclusion of other pressing matters, came under some criticism.
High on board hearings, celebrity litigation, and more: The Bombay High Court in 2020
Bombay High Court 2020

Even as the Bombay High Court switched to virtual mode to deal with urgent cases during the pandemic, it was compelled to hear a slew of "celebrity cases" featuring the who's who of Bollywood and the media.

And the fact that these celebrity cases consumed a considerable amount of judicial time, to the exclusion of other pressing matters, came under some criticism.

Even so, the High Court passed a number of significant orders on various aspects related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

When the pandemic struck, most high courts had to resort to virtual hearing to follow the mandate of the lockdown guidelines. In March 2020, in order to curb the transmission of COVID-19, the High Court decided to sit two days a week only for “extremely urgent matters.”

This time period was extended, and eventually the Court completely switched to video conference hearings everyday.

In a bid to ensure that only urgent matters are heard during this time, Justices GS Patel and KK Tated imposed costs on litigants who approached the courts with non-urgent matters.

Urgent matters heard by the High Court

In order to ensure that citizens are not compelled to approach the courts with matters pertaining to demolition and eviction of their residential or business properties, the High Court also passed an order keeping all orders pertaining to eviction, demolition and auctioning at abeyance. It was renewed from time to time till January 31, 2021 for one final time.

Thereafter, the High Court was approached on several issues which arose for the litigants by virtue of the pandemic.

Matters heard by the Principal Bench

Justice BP Colabawalla refused to entertain an application for military deployment in vulnerable areas to better contain the spread of COVID-19.

A Bench led by Chief Justice Dipankar Datta directed the State government to ensure that stocks of essential protective equipment seized by investigating agencies in Maharashtra reach frontline COVID-19 workers.

The same Bench also came down heavily on the Central government and the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NAPA) for not considering the Drug Control Order for capping prices of N95 masks.

It also noted the sorry state of affairs in prisons in the State amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It later agreed to the measures undertaken by the State in the prisons, including the setting up temporary prisons as quarantine centres for COVID care.

The Court directed the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to ensure that none of its physically disabled employees, who could not report for duty during the pandemic, were denied benefits they were otherwise entitled to.

A Bench of Justices RI Chagla and Ujjal Bhuyan stayed the Maharashtra government’s directive barring increase in school fees for the academic year 2020-21 in view of COVID-19 pandemic till the final hearing of the plea. The Court is yet to decide on this issue.

A Bench of Justices SS Shinde and Madhav Jamdar dismissed a plea urging for directions to exempt lawyers and their staff from COVID-19 lockdown restrictions for the purpose of court work.

Other benches of the High Court

The Goa Bench sought the State’s response in a plea urging the Court to take suo motu cognizance of the Goa government's inadequate medical preparedness for the pandemic. Justice MS Sonak disposed the plea in terms of the State’s response.

Justices SB Shukre and AG Gharote from the Nagpur Bench issued directions to combat COVID-19, including those for more testing, treatment and prevention of the rapidly spreading virus.

Justice Manish Pitale from the Nagpur Bench issued directions on the issues pertaining to possible use of rapid antibody tests as COVID-19 surveillance measure, low pay of ASHA workers, and augmenting testing facilities.

Justice RV Ghuge from the Aurangabad Bench declined to interfere in a plea challenging a Ministry of Home Affairs notification requiring employers to pay salaries to workers during the COVID-19 lockdown. However, permission was granted to employers to deduct the wages of employees who fail to report for duty in areas where lockdown was partially lifted.

The Aurangabad Bench quashed FIRs against 29 foreign nationals and six Indians who were accused of participating in the Tablighi Jamaat congregation at Delhi. Justice TV Nalawade observed that foreigners from a particular community were made scapegoats. Though Justice MG Sewlikar did not agree with this reasoning, he agreed to quash the FIR.

The Nagpur Bench followed suit with another judgment quashing FIRs filed against Myanmarese foreign nationals who attended the Tablighi Jamaat meeting.

Onslaught of celebrity matters

As mentioned earlier, a slew of matters related to Bollywood celebrities received the prompt attention of the Court.

Media Trials on death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput

The sudden death of late Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput prompted widespread speculation from various quarters, and sparked an epidemic of media trials. This led to a series of cases being filed before the High Court.

Sushant Singh Rajput, Bombay High Court
Sushant Singh Rajput, Bombay High Court

Petitions were filed in the High Court seeking directions to prominent television networks to restrict reportage that could hamper the investigation into Rajput's death, and that such reporting would adversely impact the ongoing Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe.

Following this, eight former Mumbai cops approached the High Court raising grievance against the maligning of the Mumbai Police's image by some sections of the media.

A Bench led by the Chief Justice asked the parties to make submissions on the adverse effects of media trials on investigation and whether the court has power to lay down any guidelines on the issue.

Initially, the Court urged media channels to show restraint in reporting on the SSR case. While hearing the pleas, the judges indicated that they might have to issue guidelines on the issue. They opined that the debates they had with the different counsels in the matter would help the government come up with parameters for a balanced policy for regulating electronic media.

The pleas were reserved for orders on November 6, 2020.

Arnab Goswami’s petitions

Arnab Goswami filed three pleas in the High Court, mostly stemming from litigation initiated by the Maharashtra government against Republic TV and himself. Interestingly, the pleas were listed for hearing the very next day after they were filed.

Goswami had moved the High Court seeking to quash the two FIRs registered against him in relation to his remarks and comments made during prime time debate shows pertaining to the gathering of migrant workers in Mumbai's Bandra on April 14, and the Palghar lynching incident.

When Goswami approached the Supreme Court, the Court transferred the investigations of the FIRs from Nagpur to Mumbai, but refused to quash the FIR filed against Goswami.

Goswami thereafter approached the High Court seeking to quash the FIRs. The High Court admitted his plea and granted him interim protection from any coercive action of the Mumbai Police till the disposal of the petition.

Arnab Goswami, Bombay High Court
Arnab Goswami, Bombay High Court

Another FIR was filed against ARG Outlier Media, the parent company of Republic TV, in relation to an alleged fake Television Rating Points (TRP) scam unearthed by the Mumbai Police. The plea sought to quash the FIR against Republic and its employees.

During the last hearing, the Mumbai Police undertook that they will not take coercive action against the persons mentioned in the chargesheet filed in the case. The High Court will finally hear the plea on January 6, 2021.

Goswami once again moved the High Court after being embroiled in the abetment to suicide case of interior designer Anvay Naik. He filed a plea challenging his illegal arrest and sought to quash the charges against him. He also filed a bail plea seeking his immediate release from detention.

The High Court denied bail to Goswami and directed him to approach the Sessions Court for regular bail.

The bail plea was heard for hours together on a non-working day. Eventually, the anchor was granted interim bail by the Supreme Court pending the disposal of the High Court plea.

Bombay High Court 2020
[Breaking] Arnab Goswami: Criminal law should not become a tool for selective harassment; High Court abdicated its role, Supreme Court

The police filed a chargesheet in the case and the same has been challenged in the plea. This plea will also be heard on January 6, 2021.

Kangana Ranaut's challenge against BMC's action

This year, Bollywood actress Kangana Ranaut was constantly in the news for her Twitter remarks and comments. Her constant spats with the Maharashtra eventually became the subject of litigation before the High Court.

Ranaut approached the High Court with a plea challenging the demolition of a portion of her property located in Bandra, Mumbai. A Bench of Justices SJ Kathawalla and RI Chagla reserved the plea within a month of the filing of the petitions, after hearing lawyers on both sides for hours.

Kangana Ranaut, Bombay High Court
Kangana Ranaut, Bombay High Court

The High Court quashed the notice of demolition issued against Ranaut and allowed her to take steps to comply with the approved plan. She was also granted compensation, which amount was to be fixed by a valuer appointed by the Court.

While granting her relief, the Court cautioned Ranaut to exercise restraint when airing her views on social media platforms.

Objectionable statements against Chief Minister and Cabinet Minister

A Bench of Justices SS Shinde and MS Karnik was approached with a plea against a woman accused of making objectionable statements against Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Cabinet Minister Aaditya Thackeray.

The Court made several observations during the hearing, noting that the judiciary must not waste precious time on contempt hearings.

Bail application by Rhea Chakraborty

The Court conducted a marathon hearing in Rhea Chakraborty's bail plea after the Special NDPS Court rejected her bail application. She was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) for allegedly procuring drugs for Sushant Singh Rajput, thereby committing offences under the Narcotics Drugs and Psychotropic Substances (NDPS) Act.

The High Court reserved its judgment on September 30, 2020 after a hearing that lasted well beyond the court’s usual working hours. Justice SV Kotwal granted bail to Chakraborty subject to furnishing of bail bond and restrictions on leaving the country.

He noted in his judgment that celebrities and role models do not have special liabilities or privileges before a court of law. This was in response to a contention that celebrities and role models should be treated harshly so as to be an example for the young generation and to deter them from committing similar offences.

Rhea Chakraborty's drug case
Rhea Chakraborty's drug case

Defamation suits of celebrities

Bollywood celebrities moved the High Court for squabbles over comments shared on social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, etc. The Court dealt with these matters with utmost urgency.

A defamation suit was filed by Bollywood actress Richa Chadha against Payal Ghosh, Kamaal R Khan and ABN Andhrajyothy for allegedly making defamatory statements against her in connection with assault charges against director Anurag Kashyap.

Ghosh eventually tendered an unconditional apology and agreed to withdraw all disputed posts uploaded by her against Chadha from all her social media handles. Khan also showed his willingness to make a statement to withdraw the content, but till he could submit such statement, he agreed to not upload or share any disputed content against Chadha.

Justice AK Menon passed an injunction order against the channel Andhrajyothi and another unknown party. These hearings before the Court happened within two weeks of filing the suit.

Bollywood director Mahesh Bhatt moved the High Court seeking an order to prevent actress Luviena Lodh from circulating a video containing defamatory contents against him and his brother Mukesh Bhatt.

Justice Menon passed a restraining order against Lodh after recording her statement that she will not make any defamatory statements against the Bhatt brothers on any media channel or agency during the pendency of the plea.

The plea was heard for ad-interim reliefs on the same day it was filed.

Lodh was also restrained by Justice PK Chavan from making defamatory statements against Bollywood actress Amyra Dastur on her social media handles.

The interim relief was granted by a vacation bench a day after the interim application was filed.

Lack of urgency while hearing Bhima Koregaon cases

The Bench, however, did not treat all bail cases in the same way. The bail cases of the Bhima Koregaon accused filed between the latter part of 2019 and early 2020 were merely listed for hearing, but could never be taken up due to paucity of time.

The accused have been in jail since 2018.

The Court was exceptionally slow when hearing the pleas moved by the Bhima Koregaon accused. The Court rejected Sudha Bharadwaj’s bail plea on emergency grounds.

The bail plea filed by Gautam Navlakha was heard by the Court after months of bring filed. The verdict is now reserved.

Two other accused, Ramesh Gaichor and Sagar Gorkhe, also have their bail pleas pending in the High Court.

Dr. Varavara Rao’s wife had to move the Supreme Court and then the High Court seeking Rao’s immediate release from detention citing medical grounds and the failure of the State to provide appropriate medial treatment in jail.

Varavara Rao
Varavara Raonewskarnataka

Rao had previously moved the High Court seeking a immediate medical check-up in light of his deteriorating health. His pleas have been pending since July 2020.

On both occasions, the Court ordered for his medical reports. Eventually, the Court recorded the statement of the Chief Public Prosecutor Deepak Thakre and Additional Solicitor General Anil Singh that Rao will be sent to Lilavati Hospital for his treatment.

Rao is still lodged in hospital and his bail plea is still pending. It will be heard on January 6, 2021.

Balancing act of High Court

The High Court also tried to balance its act with a few rulings reiterating that its judicial time was precious.

While rejecting an urgent interim application in an IPR case, Justice Patel observed that it is unfair to other litigants when IPR cases are moved last minute, constraining to courts to push aside other matters to hear a case at the eleventh hour.

A Bench led by the Chief Justice reprimanded a petitioner for filing a frivolous plea seeking to restrain the State from extending or re-imposing the COVID-19 lockdown. The petitioner was directed to deposit Rs. 1 lakh security as a pre-condition for hearing the plea.

The Court also refused to grant high on board listings for case hearings as they claimed to have received a lot of flak for hearing Goswami’s bail plea on a non-working day.

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