Coronavirus does not bother about economy: Madras High Court says not to permit beyond 50% occupancy in film theatres till January 11

Although it was told that the TN GO allowing 100% occupancy would only kick in on January 13, the Court clarified that there shall be no permission given to run theatres with above 50% seating capacity until January 11.
Coronavirus does not bother about economy: Madras High Court says not to permit beyond 50% occupancy in film theatres till January 11
Movie Theatre

The Madras High Court on Friday clarified that no permission should be given to run movie theatres with above 50% seating capacity until January 11, when it will hear the petitions challenging the Tamil Nadu government's (GO) which allows 100% occupancy in film theatres and multiplexes next.

The clarification was recorded in the order passed by the Court on Friday, although the Bench was told that the GO dated January 4, 2021 was expected to take effect only on January 13.

"We are dealing with a pandemic that does not bother about the consequences on economic factors" the Court observed as it passed its order.

The Madurai Bench of Justices MM Sundresh and S Ananthi also opined that the petitioners challenging the GO had a prima facie case.

However, it decided to adjourn the matter until Monday, January 11, in view of the statement by Additional Advocate General Sricharan Rangarajan that the State is considering the issue and also factoring in the Central government's communications in the matter. The AAG, therefore, sought time to get further instructions and get back to the Court.

The Bench recorded that it hopes and trusts "that the State government would reconsider the issue in the right perspective" by the next hearing.

The Court further asked the State to consider the issue from the point of view of the theatre owners as well. In this regard, the Court referred to suggestions made to increase the number of film shows instead of seating. The AAG today told the Court that the State is also considering such mitigation measures.

A PIL challenging the GO was also filed before the Principal Bench of the High Court, which was mentioned yesterday.

By the time the matter came up today before the first Bench of Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy, the Court was appraised of the stay already passed by the Madurai Bench.

In view of the same, the Court has also directed the State government to maintain status quo and not allow theatres to function beyond 50% capacity until further orders while directing that all pleas in the matter be heard by the Madurai Bench.

Highlights of the hearing before Madurai Bench today

Today's hearing saw Justice Sundresh caution the State that the Court would pass orders in the matter if the government fails to respond. He orally observed,

"There is nothing more to argue... 1+1 is 2. We are dealing with the Disaster Management Act... You know the binding nature of the directions issued... it is for you to take a call. Otherwise, leave it to us."

Referring to submissions made on behalf of the Tamil Nadu Theatre and Multiplex Owners Association by Senior Sounsel S Prabakaran today, Justice Sundresh added,

"We sympathise with them, but we are not concerned with the impact of the restrictions, which is obviously huge for various stakeholders."

The petitioners contended that the January 4 GO violated the Supreme Court's earlier directions to strictly abide by COVID-19 SOPs and for the States to work harmoniously to abide by the Central government's guidelines. There cannot be any dilution of the Centre's guidelines, which only permits up to 50% occupancy in theatres that were outside COVID-19 containment zones, it was pointed out.

Advocates Sankar Shanmugam, A Kannan and Madhavan Sreenivasan were among the counsel who appeared for the petitioners.

It was argued that the January 4 GO was passed only on the basis of representations by theatre owners. There was nothing to show experts were consulted. One cannot ensure that SOPs are followed within the closed theatres, the petitioners added.

Additional Solicitor General L Victoria Gowri also backed the petitioner's stance, arguing that the State of Tamil Nadu is not entitled to violate the guidelines put in place by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. She also affirmed before the Court that the Centre had addressed a communication on January 5 to the Tamil Nadu Government informing it that it has to strictly abide by the Centre's guidelines.

Appearing for theatre owners, Prabakaran argued that the matter involves a question of survival. Theatre owners have been suffering for the past ten months, he told the Court. He pointed out that even flights are now operating with increased seating and that temple festivals are being permitted, subject to compliance with safety norms. Referring to how even political meetings are being organised with large numbers, he remarked, "no one has the guts to say 'this is wrong.'"

As such, he urged for the functioning of theatres as well, adding that livelihood of over 1 lakh people was at stake. They would also abide by any directives to ensure safety, he submitted.

Upon perusing the various communications made by the national authorities in the matter, the Court, however, opined that they clearly state that there cannot be any breach of 50% seating capacity in cinema theatres and multiplexes.

However, the Bench assured the Theatres Association that it would be impleaded in the matter and that if the verdict was against them, orders would be passed to try and mitigate their loss as well.

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