The Supreme Court has issued fresh standard operating procedures to accord final hearing of cases in physical mode from September 1 and will employ a hybrid option from Tuesday to Thursday amid strict observance of Covid appropriate norms.
The top court has been hearing cases through video-conferencing since March last year due to the pandemic and several bar bodies and lawyers have been demanding that physical hearings should resume immediately.
The SOP, issued by the Secretary-General on August 28, made it clear that the courts would keep hearing miscellaneous cases through virtual mode on Mondays and Fridays. “Wearing of mask, frequent use of hand sanitizer and maintaining physical distancing norms are mandatory for all entrants into the Supreme Court premises, including into the Courtrooms,” the SOP said.
The procedures mandated that once litigants and the lawyers opt for the hearing through physical mode then “hearing through video/teleconferencing mode to the party concerned will not be facilitated”.
The SOP has been issued on the directions of Chief Justice N V Ramana who took note of the recommendations of the Judges’ Committee set up earlier to consider representations and requests of bar bodies that the hearing through physical mode be started keeping in mind the financial and technical difficulties being faced by many lawyers.
“To gradually facilitate the resumption of the physical hearing, the final hearing/regular matters listed on non-miscellaneous days may be heard in the physical model (with hybrid option), as may be decided by the Bench, considering the number of parties in a matter as well as the limited capacity of the Courtrooms; further, any other matter may be heard in physical mode on such days, if Bench directs likewise.
“All other matters, including those listed on miscellaneous days, shall continue to be heard through video/teleconferencing mode,” it said. The bench, hearing cases through physical mode, may decide to take a break during the hearings for a period of about 15 minutes, so that the courtroom may be sanitized, it said. If the number of advocates for parties is more than 20, the average working capacity of the courtrooms as per Covid norms, the bench “at any given time” resort to the virtual mode of hearing, the SOP said.
“In a matter listed for physical hearing…, one AOR (or his nominee), one arguing counsel and one junior counsel per party will be allowed entry; one registered Clerk per party, as may be chosen by the AOR, shall be allowed entry to carry paper books/journals etc…,” it said. Lawyers will have to register on the apex court’s portal and submit their preferences for appearing before the bench within 24 hours of listing of the case for hearing, it said.
“The entry of the counsels/parties into the HSZ (high security zone) to appear for physical hearing will be through daily ‘Special hearing passes’ which will be issued by the Registry, on the basis of authorization by the concerned Advocate-on-Record on the portal…,” it said. Multiple chair along with tables are being placed inside courtrooms and it shall be incumbent upon lawyers and litigants to maintain “minimum prescribed physical distancing norms”, it said, adding every entrant will have to undergo “thermal and such other scanning devices as may be installed for detecting body temperature, infection status, etc.”
The entry of parties in a matter will be permitted not earlier than ten minutes before the start of the hearing, it said. Earlier in March this year the apex court had commenced hybrid proceedings, a combination of virtual and physical hearings, amid demands by lawyers for resumption of complete physical hearings but the system could not take off due to the onset of the second wave of COVID pandemic.
On August 18, the top court had indicated that physical hearing in the apex court, which is conducting proceedings virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic since March last year, may resume soon.
A bench headed by the CJI had then said that physical hearing in the apex court may start within 10 days. In July this year, the SCBA had written a letter to the CJI urging that a physical hearing in the apex court be resumed saying the COVID-19 situation in the national capital has become “almost normal”.